Airline Security a Waste of Cash
By Bruce Schneier

Story location:,1848,69712,00.html

02:00 AM Dec. 01, 2005 PT

Since 9/11, our nation has been obsessed with air-travel security. Terrorist
attacks from the air have been the threat that looms largest in Americans'
minds. As a result, we've wasted millions on misguided programs to separate
the regular travelers from the suspected terrorists -- money that could have
been spent to actually make us safer.

Consider CAPPS and its replacement, Secure Flight. These are programs to
check travelers against the 30,000 to 40,000 names on the government's
No-Fly list, and another 30,000 to 40,000 on its Selectee list.

They're bizarre lists: people -- names and aliases -- who are too dangerous
to be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent that they
cannot be arrested, even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act.
The Selectee list contains an equal number of travelers who must be searched
extensively before they're allowed to fly. Who are these people, anyway?

The truth is, nobody knows. The lists come from the Terrorist Screening
Database, a hodgepodge compiled in haste from a variety of sources, with no
clear rules about who should be on it or how to get off it. The government
is trying to clean up the lists, but -- garbage in, garbage out -- it's not
having much success.

The program has been a complete failure, resulting in exactly zero
terrorists caught. And even worse, thousands (or more) have been denied the
ability to fly, even though they've done nothing wrong. These denials fall
into two categories: the "Ted Kennedy" problem (people who aren't on the
list but share a name with someone who is) and the "Cat Stevens" problem
(people on the list who shouldn't be). Even now, four years after 9/11, both
these problems remain.

I know quite a lot about this. I was a member of the government's Secure
Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security. We looked at the TSA's program
for matching airplane passengers with the terrorist watch list, and found a
complete mess: poorly defined goals, incoherent design criteria, no clear
system architecture, inadequate testing. (Our report was on the TSA website,
but has recently been removed -- "refreshed" is the word the organization
used -- and replaced with an "executive summary" (.doc) that contains none
of the report's findings. The TSA did retain two (.doc) rebuttals (.doc),
which read like products of the same outline and dismiss our findings by
saying that we didn't have access to the requisite information.) Our
conclusions match those in two (.pdf) reports (.pdf) by the Government
Accountability Office and one (.pdf) by the DHS inspector general.

Alongside Secure Flight, the TSA is testing Registered Traveler programs.
There are two: one administered by the TSA, and the other a commercial
program from Verified Identity Pass called Clear. The basic idea is that you
submit your information in advance, and if you're OK -- whatever that means
-- you get a card that lets you go through security faster.

Superficially, it all seems to make sense. Why waste precious time making
Grandma Miriam from Brooklyn empty her purse when you can search Sharaf, a
26-year-old who arrived last month from Egypt and is traveling without

The reason is security. These programs are based on the dangerous myth that
terrorists match a particular profile and that we can somehow pick
terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone. That's simply
not true.

What these programs do is create two different access paths into the
airport: high-security and low-security. The intent is to let only good guys
take the low-security path and to force bad guys to take the high-security
path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys
will find a way to exploit the low-security path. Why couldn't a terrorist
just slip an altimeter-triggered explosive into the baggage of a registered

It may be counterintuitive, but we are all safer if enhanced screening is
truly random, and not based on an error-filled database or a cursory
background check.

The truth is, Registered Traveler programs are not about security; they're
about convenience. The Clear program is a business: Those who can afford $80
per year can avoid long lines. It's also a program with a questionable
revenue model. I fly 200,000 miles a year, which makes me a perfect
candidate for this program. But my frequent-flier status already lets me use
the airport's fast line and means that I never get selected for secondary
screening, so I have no incentive to pay for a card. Maybe that's why the
Clear pilot program in Orlando, Florida, only signed up 10,000 of that
airport's 31 million annual passengers.

I think Verified Identity Pass understands this, and is encouraging use of
its card everywhere: at sports arenas, power plants, even office buildings.
This is just the sort of mission creep that moves us ever closer to a "show
me your papers" society.

Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement
of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight
back. Everything else -- Secure Flight and Trusted Traveler included -- is
security theater. We would all be a lot safer if, instead, we implemented
enhanced baggage security -- both ensuring that a passenger's bags don't fly
unless he does, and explosives screening for all baggage -- as well as
background checks and increased screening for airport employees.

Then we could take all the money we save and apply it to intelligence,
investigation and emergency response. These are security measures that pay
dividends regardless of what the terrorists are planning next, whether it's
the movie plot threat of the moment, or something entirely different.

- - -

Bruce Schneier is the CTO of Counterpane Internet Security and the author of
Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. You can
contact him through his website.

End of story

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