Security theater

The Times seeks to explain “What to Expect as the T.S.A. Tightens Airport Security“:

preparing for any new security measures is not straightforward. The T.S.A. has purposely been vague about what travelers will encounter, other than more police at the airport and additional layers of security.

“Passengers should be prepared for additional measures of security, but we can’t say what they are,” said Lauren Gaches, a spokeswoman for the T.S.A.

This is useless. Indeed, worse than useless. Security through obscurity is often harmful. If I can’t pack something on my next flight, I want to know what it is. If I’m going to be asked to put my bags or my body through some new screening, I want to know exactly what’s going to happen to them. If someone dangerous can use that knowledge to put others at risk, it doesn’t make me safer to keep that hidden. Indeed, I and others need to know about those risks so that we can be vigilant.

This isn’t security, it’s security theater. It’s meant to make us all feel safer, rather than to actually make us safer. Ditto for stopping travelers from using electronics in the first and last hour of a flight, or from keeping jackets or blankets on our laps. At best, it prevents the last attack, and we already prevented that one by having passengers alert and aware and free to move about. Heck, having a blanket you can toss over a terrorist’s head doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

One day, airport security will be rationally driven by the actual risks we face, not by a mere desire to make people think they’re safer.

Image via.


  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 2, 2010

    As always, it is worth linking to Bruce Schneier’s blog when discussing security theater. I am not sure if he coined the term, but he is certainly the most eloquent and analytically rigorous commentator on security today.

  2. #2 GrayGaffer
    January 3, 2010

    Bruce can always deliver that breath of fresh air.

    btw: although I totally agree in principle with the message of the image, it has an arithmetic problem: 70 billion flight miles, 7 billion passengers, 100+ passengers per flight, nets about 0.1- miles per passenger. Not even enough to get to the end of the runway to take off. I know we know one precision fail does not necessarily invalidate the message, but the class of mind involved in concocting this theater, or thinking it is actually helping, is also the class of mind that requires 100% accuracy or it will completely reject the 99.9% that was correct.

    I think of it this way:

    deaths from terrorism, 1999 – 2009: <4000 (not counting the lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, because those were all unnecessary – we should not be invading there at all).

    deaths from highway accidents, 1999 – 2009: 450,000.

    We should therefore be applying 1% of our highway safety efforts to anti-terrorism. Or, as Bruce puts it, reinforcing the drivers compartment and being vigilant is all that is needed, and it works. Every accident I have witnessed was the result of a failure to be vigilant. As were the failures to follow up on the warnings about the 9/11 hijackers before they flew.

  3. #3 Malcolm Scott
    January 3, 2010

    @GrayGaffer: no, the arithmetic looks reasonable: 7 billion passengers, 100+ passengers per flight, therefore 70 million flights, and 1000 miles per flight on average. Miles per passenger isn’t useful!

  4. #4 GrayGaffer
    January 3, 2010


    But I prefer to use the deaths risk analysis. Being hit by lightning is pretty abstract to almost everybody. Dying in a car crash is not.

    I hope one of these days the MSM stop calling things like the underpants event an “attempted act of terrorism”. He may not have blown up the plane, but he sure terrified TSA. Which messes things up more for the rest of us. So I would call it a successful act of terrorism.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    January 3, 2010

    Comrade PP: Note that the “security through obscurity” link goes to Schneier. I believe he did invent the “security theater” phrase, but I wanted to share the love a bit.

    GrayGaffer: As Malcolm notes, why is miles/passenger the interesting statistic? Wouldn’t miles/flight be the important check?