Bruce Schneier: TSA, Security and Trade-Offs

When the TSA body screening, genital groping was in the news, I got into several discussions in Twitter and elsewhere about the ineffective security theater that this procedure represented. There were a couple of points that I tried to make in these discussions, but, especially on twitter, the setting didn’t really permit a full airing of the issue. So I referred people to the Virtually Speaking episode that featured security expert Bruce Schneier and Atlantic’s James Fallows, who is an avid civil aviator, and well acquainted with security measures throughout the world.

The only trouble is that not everyone finds a reference to an hour long audio discussion terribly helpful. So I have finally clipped out a couple of key points of discussion, and also transcribed them.  First,  Bruce on thinking about security as a series of trade-offs:

Bruce Schneier

First, is Bruce Schneier, who explains why all security decisions represent a series of trade-offs.

A lot of times people think about security as a property. You’re either secure or you’re not secure. That is really not the way to think of it. Security is a trade-off, all right. There really is no such thing as absolute security Life itself is risk, but we in the process of living our lives trade off things to get security. We trade off money or time or convenience.

So we get a burglar alarm. It costs some money and incovenenience and gives us some security in return. Or we take off our shoes at the airport. And that costs us money and time and we get some security in return. That really is the way to think of it as a trade off…

After September 11th I was interviewed and someone said, “What we should do to keep this from ever happening again?”

And I said “That’s easy. Ground all the aircraft.”

That’s an extreme tradeoff we would never do but if you think of the hours after 9/11 that is exactly what we did do–when we didn’t know the extent of the plot or the attacks–a very extreme trade off, temporarily,was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

You’ll see this personal, corporate, national. When I was a kid, I had relatives who lived in a gated community in New York City. They traded off some freedom of movement for some security.

A bullet-proof vest is a good example. Almost none of us is wearing one. Not because they don’t work. They work just great. But because for us living in the industrial world in 2010 they are not worth the trade off. The cost, the inconvenience, the loss of fashion sense or whatever.

Se whenever you look at security measures, it’s not enough to say “Does it work,” you need to say “is it worth it?”

I think that’s the key to good security analysis.

The relevance for the body scanners should be obvious. The cost in inconvenience, indignity, and dollar expense is simply out of keeping with the amount of additional security the scanners provide us. Aside from all the other objections involving simply using airports without the scanners, or using some other way around what John Cole of Balloon Juice calls a Maginot Security Line,  all of this fuss is over an attempt that failed. The enormous response ginned up in response to what Bruce notes in the full interview was a failed attack, an attack stopped, as such attacks will be stopped, by passengers and crew.

Next post, an excerpt from James Fallows on why it is politicians cannot help themselves–why they must engage in security measures they know are not worth the cost in money, time or inconvenience.

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