May 30, 2024

Security Theater

Lots of people are telling airport-security stories these days. Thus far I have refrained from doing so, even though I travel a lot, because I think the TSA security screeners generally do a good job. But last week I saw something so dumb that I just have to share it.

I’m in the security-checkpoint line at Boston’s Logan airport. In front of me is an All-American family of five, Mom, Dad, and three young children, obviously headed somewhere hot and sunny. They have the usual assortment of backpacks and carry-on bags.

When they get through the metal detector, they’re told that Mom and Dad had been pre-designated for the more intensive search, where they wand-scan you and go through your bags. This search is a classic example of what Bruce Schneier calls Security Theater, since it looks impressive but doesn’t do much good. The reason it doesn’t do much good is that it’s easy to tell in advance whether you’re going to be searched. At one major airport, for example, the check-in agent writes a large red “S” on your boarding pass if you’re designated for this search; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this means. So only clueless bad guys will be searched, and groups of bad guys will be able to transfer any contraband into the bags of group members who won’t be searched, with plenty of time after the security checkpoint to redistribute it as desired.

But back to my story. Mom and Dad have been designated for search, and the kids have not. So the security screener points to the family’s pile of bags and asks which of the bags belong to Mom and Dad, because those are the ones that he is going to search. That’s right: he asks the suspected bad guys (and they must be suspected, otherwise why search them) which of their bags they would like to have searched. Mom is stunned, wondering if the screener can possibly be asking what she thinks he’s asking. I can see her scheming, wondering whether to answer honestly and have some stranger paw through her purse, or to point instead to little Johnny’s bag of toys.

Eventually she answers, probably honestly, and the screener makes a great show of diligence in his search. Security theater, indeed.


  1. You say: Almost as pointless as flagging anybody who buys a one-way ticket. Given that all the bad guys know full well that buying a one-way gets you flagged, I think it’s probably a very safe bet that anybody with a one-way ticket is *not a bad guy*.

    I say: And yet…and yet…Didn’t one of the 911 hijackers actually tell the flight training place tghat only wanted to learn how to fly but not how to take off and land????

  2. The TSA must be getting very slack. The last three times I got the “SSSS” code, every member of my reservation got the code and we all got the extra special love that only a TSA extensive search represents. In this case, it meant my 16 month old daughter was a suspected terrorist. The TSA goon almost had a cow when I attempted to pick up my crying toddler after I had been wanded but before she had.

    Travelling in the same reservation as someone using a non-US passport for ID is almost certain to get you the extra attention. The first time we got it was becuase my daughter, on our return trip from her Chinese adoption, had a Chinese passport. That time, at the yellow alert at the beginning of the most recent Iraq war, the inspector was very concerned about my apple tang and instant oatmeal packets to the extent that they had to be opened to have the contents tested.

    The next time I get to be a part of Security Theater, I want better seats and an intermission.

  3. I was forced to stay an extra day in DC when the “security theatre” delayed me just long enough to miss the last plane of the day. I posted this story here on your blog last November, replying to your post “The Broadcast Flag, and Threat Model Confusion“.

    Thanks for bringing a little more sunshine to this issue, and at some point, I’d love to hear your thoughts about what the governent really ought to be doing to solve airline security. What is the appropriate threat model?

  4. Pretty much exactly the same thing happened to me. I was flying with my wife and we had four bags total. We were told that two could go on-board right away, but two had to be hand-searched in another building (where we had to bring the bags, unaccompanied)! We had to pick which two. I actually asked the screener to repeat herself to make sure I was hearing her right. This episode (along with a few other choice Security Theater inanities) is recounted in my “Too Frequent Traveler” journal.

  5. Bored Huge Krill says

    I also got “selected” by the airline for additional security checks while flying out of San Diego this Wednesday.

    As it appears to me, it isn’t necessary to wait for the employee at the security line to write a big red “S” on your boarding card (that does appear to be the standard procedure). They’re only taking their cue from what is already on the boarding card and making it more obvious for the TSA personnel later down the line.

    In this case, my status as a “selectee” was indicated on the printed boarding pass by the appearance of “SSSS” printed in the bottom right hand corner. I’m guessing that’s standard.

    Pointless indeed.

    Almost as pointless as flagging anybody who buys a one-way ticket. Given that all the bad guys know full well that buying a one-way gets you flagged, I think it’s probably a very safe bet that anybody with a one-way ticket is *not a bad guy*.

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