excerpt from my book on technology, terrorism, and
DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order, but I have started putting chapters up in
pdf form from time to time.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
[email protected] If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address.
But a system that only works
after a transatlantic flight has landed doesn’t do much good if al Qaeda is
trying to blow up the plane before it lands.
Protecting the flight, as opposed to the border, is supposed to be TSA’s
job. If CBP can construct a workable
screening system that uses all of the government’s data, why didn’t TSA have
such a system eight years after 9/11?
The short answer is that TSA tried
to build such a system and was rebuffed by a well-organized privacy campaign. In fact, during the years since 9/11, privacy
lobbyists managed to stall a host of new air security measures. In particular, they forced TSA to postpone
and largely neuter the kind of data-based screening system that has worked so
well at the border.
had help from history. Keeping weapons
off planes was our central strategy for years – since the days of the Cuban
hijackings in the 1960s. But it was
obvious for years that that strategy was played out. Weapons kept getting smaller and their hiding
places kept getting more imaginative and harder, or more embarrassing, to
find. (The 80 grams of explosive that
Abdulmutallab was carrying weighed a bit more than a hot dog, and a bit less
than bra inserts that can change a B cup to a C.)
The focus on weapons had to
change, about which more later, but at present searching for weapons is the
system we have, and it needs improvement badly.
As everyone now knows, we actually do have better ways to find small
weapons hidden in embarrassing places.
The millimeter-wave and backscatter machines that look beneath clothing
are far preferable to a “patdown” that probes everywhere that three ounces of
explosives could be hidden. And, creepy
as the scanners are, the privacy issues can be handled by making sure the
images can’t be stored or copied and the image screeners are nowhere near the
people being screened.
TSA had been using these
machines as an alternative to patdowns in “secondary” screening for about a
year. But most travelers don’t trigger
secondary scrutiny. Abdulmutallab
didn’t. If keeping weapons off the plane
is our main line of defense – and it is – we need to screen everyone for the
weapons Abdulmutallab was carrying.
So why don’t we? After the attack, everyone was clamoring for
the scanners, and the privacy groups seemed quite responsible on the
subject. As Marc Rotenberg, head of the
Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the New York Times last week, “his
group had not objected to the use of the devices, as long as they were designed
not to store and record images.”
For an organization committed
to staving off 1984, EPIC seems
remarkably adept at dropping things down the memory hole. Just three months before claiming that it
didn’t want to prohibit whole body imaging, EPIC and nearly two dozen other
privacy groups sent a letter to Congress saying that whole body imaging ought
to be, well, prohibited.
In fact, the groups said, DHS’s Chief Privacy Officer had violated the law when
she failed to prohibit TSA’s new
policy on whole body imaging. If the law had been followed, the groups said,
“the new policy would not have been implemented in the first place.” Such screening, they declared, “is exactly
the type of action that the Chief Privacy Officer should be preventing in
satisfaction of her statutory obligations.”
(Note: Rotenberg later told me that the New York Times misquoted
For the privacy groups, it was
just another day at the office. The
coalition that signed the letter was by now a well-oiled machine. It had stalled many new security measures
since 9/11. And as far as whole body
imaging was concerned, the privacy machine was on the brink of another
In June, a bipartisan majority
of the House of Representatives had voted to prohibit TSA from using the
machines for primary screening. With a
three-to-one margin of victory, it was nearly inevitable that the restriction
would have found its way into an appropriations bill or some other must-pass
piece of legislation. If not for the
inconvenient timing of the Christmas attack, another new security technology
would have been taken off the table.
This wasn’t a victory just for
the left-leaning groups that have traditionally scoffed at a war on terrorism.
The privacy coalition that nearly killed imaging also included the American
Association of Small Property Owners and the Gun Owners of America, and they
persuaded large numbers of conservatives to vote against the security interests
of air travelers. The alliance reflects
a kind of political circularity, in which the far left and the far right
discover that they have more in common with each other than with the
But in a deeply divided
Congress, where each side counts on its most vociferous supporters to turn out
the vote, one way to achieve bipartisan action is to propose legislation that
appeals to the fringe of each party. The
ban on whole-body imaging was just such a proposal. Republicans and Democrats alike could claim a
victory for their base. Republicans and
Democrats alike were protected against partisan second-guessing in the event of
an attack because the measure had support in both parties.
It is a magic combination that
has worked for the privacy coalition for years, despite the fact that most
Americans are far more concerned about effective security than privacy.