Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rachel Maddow Interviews Bruce Schneier on Terrorism Hysteria and Airport Security

Here we go again. With last week's attempted terror attack on an airplane heading from Amsterdam to Detroit we can expect the usual government/media playbook: over hype the threat to public safety; attempt to institute cumbersome, intrusive, and largely ineffectual new security measures that invade individual privacy, waste money and resources that could be better spent on more effective counter-terrorism tools, and do little to nothing to make us safer.

What seems to always escape the public discourse is just how astronomical the odds are that any American is going to be killed by a terrorist attack on an airplane (or in any other way for that matter). For instance, the odds I'm going to be hit by lightening this year alone are 1 in 500,000. The odds that I will be hijacked by a terrorist - if I fly 20 times a year for the next 10 years - is 10 million to 1. I like those odds...so please hold off on making flying a living nightmare!

I’ll leave it to security expert Bruce Schneier to go through a more comprehensive list of recent government efforts to “crackdown” on terrorism in our nation’s airports, but let me mention a few of my “moronic hall of fame”.

There’s the wonderfully creepy "Whole Body Imaging" technology that photographs American air travelers as if they’re being stripped naked – a tool opposed by just about all of the nation’s privacy rights organizations.

Up until recently, the machines were mostly confined to being a voluntary alternative to being patted-down by an agent. However, several airports nationwide have already begun to mandate that all passengers pass through the high-tech machines. The good news is opposition to Whole Body Imagining seems to be growing, as is often the case once it dawns on people that it’s a serious pain in the ass, makes them feel violated, and isn’t going to make them safer.

Or take for instance the emergence of "Project Hostile Intent" - the United State's new and not so privacy friendly airport/border security system (still being developed). This system, a technology worthy of a creepy sci-fi movie, has raised the eyebrows of privacy protection advocates because it would collect a variety of personal information about travelers.

Computer World wrote: The system interprets your gestures and facial expressions, analyzes your voice and virtually probes your body to determine your temperature, heart rate, respiration rate and other physiological characteristics -- all in an effort to determine whether you are trying to deceive. Fail the test, and you'll be pulled aside for a more aggressive interrogation and searches.

And Bruce Schneier at the time said: "Even if Project Hostile Intent ultimately succeeds, it will not be a panacea for preventing terrorism. The risk can be reduced, but not eliminated, he says. "If we had perfect security in airports, terrorists would go bomb shopping malls," he says. "You'll never be secure by defending targets."

Before I get to security expert Bruce Schneier's extremely enlightening article on CNN's site, let's get to his interview yesterday with Rachel Maddow:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Now let's get to more of Schneier's article:

Terrorism is rare, far rarer than many people think. It's rare because very few people want to commit acts of terrorism, and executing a terrorist plot is much harder than television makes it appear. The best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don't think this way: They are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.

"Security theater" refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at U.S. airports in the months after 9/11 -- their guns had no bullets. The U.S. color-coded system of threat levels, the pervasive harassment of photographers, and the metal detectors that are increasingly common in hotels and office buildings since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, are additional examples.…

Often, this "something" is directly related to the details of a recent event. We confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. We tell people they can't use an airplane restroom in the last 90 minutes of an international flight. But it's not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning.

If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we've wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we've wasted our money. Terrorists don't care what they blow up and it shouldn't be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

Unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities -- both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur -- and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare.

We'd do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable.

Click here to read more.

Advancements in technology may serve certain security purposes, but more than naught, represent the continuing expansion of Big Brother's ability to monitor and record nearly everything we do - all under the guise of keeping us safe. But who is keeping us safe from those doing the watching and recording? And is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile tradeoff for unproven protections from a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 10 million chance of killing someone who's been flying 20 times a year for 10 years?

Terrorists should be treated like common criminals. In fact, if you look at history, attack after attack is thwarted by investigators, good intelligence, working relationships with other nations, and a commitment to the rule of law. Oh, and perhaps we could stop giving misguided, vengeful, and disenfranchised individuals incentive to blow themselves and hundreds of innocent people up by not continuously bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, and supporting their brutal authoritarian leaders?

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