Security theatre exposed

Airport-Security-Measures

One has to comment on the events in Belgium. One of the issues with recent changes in airport security that this attack has highlighted is that the increased security has just moved the problem. Rather than trying to attack the aircraft, terrorists are instead going to focus on the unsecured areas of the airport, a move many security experts pointed out was inevitable. And given the very security measures recently adopted, it means that such areas tend to be crammed with people.

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Indeed I would question how effective those measures taken airside actually are. Take the issue of bans on liquids on a plane. I recall seeing some poor Irish Tinker having holy water taken off him by some security guard arguing that they it was a security hazard, or old ladies having water they needed to keep hydrated confiscated. After all how many aircraft have been blown up by Irish travellers and grannies…..oh wait, that would be none!

And besides the policy is that you just have to put fluids in a small polythene bag and show them to the security guard. And how exactly is he supposed to tell nitroglycerine from shampoo? Or hydrogen peroxide from cough syrup? Granted he could smell the stuff (both have a very distinct odour) or taste it (but that said, he’d probably not want to do that for several hundred passengers a day! Not unless he wants to have to get his stomach pumped after each shift!) but this would ignore the wonders of chemistry. The fact is that its all too easy to mix in something to a liquid to change its colour, taste or scent into something completely different.

That aromatic shampoo you bought or that burger sauce probably doesn’t have the same original smell or taste you think. No, the company will have chucked in a few additives (those E numbers you see on the label) to give it a different taste, smell or colour. It would be possible for a suitably skilled chemist to take some chemical explosive and make it look, smell and taste like single malt whiskey. So the measures we are taking are simply not effective.

The implication would be to ban all liquids from hand luggage, regardless of size (what’s to stop several people sneaking little bottles through and mixing them together in an airside toilet?). But that would mean they’d probably try to sneak it in via the duty free (unless you propose to chemically test every drop in the shops airside) or via the liquids sold on board. So the only option would be to ban all liquids from planes and accept all the inconveniences that this produces (such as transatlantic flights having to land half way across so everyone can get a water break!).

Or alternatively accept the fact that the risk from liquid explosives is very low, there’s a whole reason why industrial users of explosives or the military don’t use them – they’re not suicidally stupid (while wannabe Jihadi’s are suicidally stupid, the fact is that they’d likely kill themselves trying to make such a bomb long before they got one near a plane).

I mean we handle some of the chemicals you’d need too use in such a plot in labs and they are very dangerous, often coming with toxic vapours, liquids prone to self ignition or corrosive. Quite frankly my advice for catching a terrorist would be to watch out for anyone with massive chemical burns or missing his hair!

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But those super expensive scanners work don’t they?….nope! Indeed tests conducted by the FBI on the America TSA found that they failed to stop dangerous items 95% of the time. So all of this hassle and expense only improves security by 5%….and that’s only if we ignore what happened in Brussels a few days ago!

So I would argue that such measures as we are applying are simply a waste of time. Its a phenomenon we call “security theatre” where we create the illusion of security through some elaborate ceremony, even though it makes little actual difference. Quite frankly they may as well take to sacrificing chickens to the gods of flight for all the good it does.

Particularly when you realise how little security is applied to freight carried on board commercial flights. Its likely that the recent crash in the Sinai was caused by a bomb smuggled into the cargo hold, bypassing the normal security measures. Logic dictates that if you consider the threat to be that great, search everybody and everything or don’t bother with searches at all.

ben-innes-hijack-selfie

A selfie with a hijacker, now I’ve seen it all!

As for reinforced cockpit doors, while yes they keep out hijackers, but they don’t stop hijackings, as recent events in Cyprus show. However they certainly make it possible for a suicidal pilot to crash his plane as the Germanwings incident and LAM air flight 470 demonstrate. There have also been cases of planes being hijacked by the aircrew. Its possible that this was behind the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

So I would argue that the evidence is that such measures are proving to be counter productive. There are solutions. Some airlines make sure a stewardess comes into the cockpit when one of the flight crew leaves, but I would question what exactly they are supposed to do if a pilot tries to crash the plane. No, reconfiguring cockpits to eliminate the need for crew to leave (e.g. have a toilet accessible from the cockpit). Autopilots could be reprogrammed to make it harder for a suicidal pilot to deliberately crash his plane.

Or better yet, bring back the third crewman. Put a trainee pilot in a seat behind the two pilots. He can take over flying if one of them needs to leave the cockpit, as well as proving an extra pair of hands and eyes in an emergency. Several accidents have been avoided or the impact reduced by the lucky presence of another pilot on board during an emergency.

Of course all of these measures would be expensive and hence the powers that be are reluctant to implement them. However I would take that as an admission that the threat of terrorism is actually very low, alot less than they suggest. Most anti-terrorism is about political points scoring, rather than actually keeping people safe.

The fact is that if the goal is keeping aircraft safe that means taking a more pragmatic approach. And for starters that means avoiding anything that involves a large build up of queues and means that the security envelope starts from the kerbside. Which in America means getting rid of silly “open carry” laws that lets some redneck walk into an airport with an AR-15 (if a black person or an Asian did that, how many seconds before he got shot?).

It means applying common sense being applied by well training (and well paid) officers, not arbitrary rules applied by security drones with a bad case of Stanford prison syndrome. And it means accepting the fact that if we want real security that this is going to cost money. Noting that the half-assed measures currently applied ain’t cheap, the only difference is…they make no difference at all to security.

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