Privacy & Security

Airport Security Theater Is Alive and Well

  • author Mark Nestmann
  • calendar November 9, 2021

The sole job of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is to keep weapons and explosives off airplanes. And despite its $8 billion annual budget, it has a long record of doing it poorly.

In 2015, undercover agents were sent to dozens of America’s largest airports to test TSA security protocols. They were able to smuggle fake explosives or weapons through security checkpoints 95% of the time. The TSA failed in 67 out of 70 tests.

Two years later, the agents were sent in again. The good news is that the failure rate fell from 95% to 70%. The bad news is … well, in Minneapolis, the failure rate was 94%. And a 70% failure rate is nothing to celebrate.

Since then, not much has changed. Confirmation came most recently in a September report from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The report analyzed the performance of 300 three-dimensional computed tomography (CT) systems the TSA purchased in an effort to detect a broader range of explosives than the technology the agency currently has deployed. Also, TSA officials hoped the technology would lead to an “improved passenger experience” by cutting wait times at security checkpoints and no longer requiring removal of liquids and laptops from carry-on bags.

Unfortunately, the CT systems failed on every count. We won’t bore you with the details, except to repeat the Inspector General’s conclusion: “TSA risks spending over $700 million in future appropriated funding to purchase CT systems that may never fully meet operational mission needs.”

Now, we understand in these days of multi-trillion-dollar annual federal deficits, $700 million is little more than a drop in a rusty, leaking bucket. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind readers of the TSA’s previous and ultimately futile efforts to use technology to detect bombs and explosives.

Consider the saga of the Rapiscan scanner. It began after an inept terrorist with a bomb hidden in his underwear tried to blow up a jet carrying 289 passengers in 2009. The bomb failed to explode, but America’s national security bureaucracy went into high gear after the “Underwear Bomber” incident. Its mission was to come up with new ways to detect bombs or weapons hidden under clothing.

The result was a full-body imaging device that produced virtually nude images of people at TSA checkpoints. Within weeks, the government ordered more than 300 of Rapiscan’s machines, at $150,000 each.

But like the CT systems the DHS Inspector General recently analyzed, the Rapiscan scanners didn’t work. Body fat and plastic explosives looked a lot alike on the scanners. They also failed to detect firearms reliably. The government eventually canceled the contract with Rapiscan, but not before spending $118 million on technology from the company.

But the procedure used to decide to buy the scanners in the first place says a lot about the government’s procurement process. It quickly became apparent that the bureaucrats at the top of the national security food chain didn’t care if a proposed solution actually worked. It was far more important to direct the billions of dollars Congress had appropriated to fight terrorism to the right place. And Rapiscan had positioned itself to be there by hiring former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff as its chief lobbyist.

We’re not privy to the details of how TSA selected the CT systems in question, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the process worked in a similar way.

To be fair, there are some things that the TSA does very well. For instance, it’s very effective at seizing cash from travelers. Indeed, a Freedom of Information Act inquiry revealed that between 2000 and 2016, more than 30,000 cash seizures occurred at American airports, with more than $2 billion confiscated from travelers. Virtually all the seizures occurred under federal civil forfeiture law, in which authorities can seize assets without any proof of wrongdoing.

The TSA also does a superb job of invading our privacy. Just to board a flight, we need permission from Big Brother, otherwise known as “Secure Flight.” If you’re on any of TSA’s watch lists (which at one time included such deceased “terrorists” as Saddam Hussein), you could be denied boarding.

And let’s not forget the “Real ID” fiasco. Although to be fair, we can blame this farce on Congress, not the TSA. The Real ID Act establishes “national uniform standards” for driver’s licenses. Once the law comes into effect, state driver’s licenses that fail to conform to federally mandated “minimum standards” will no longer be valid for any federal “official purpose.” One such official purpose is boarding an airplane.

While the original deadline to obtain an identification document meeting these minimum standards was 2011, it’s been repeatedly extended. The current deadline is May 3, 2023.

Real ID is a privacy and security nightmare. Once it comes into effect, there will be 50 interconnected state databases containing private and sensitive information on more than 220 million licensed drivers. Each state must provide all other states with electronic access to its motor vehicle database. To work properly, the database will need to be available to any authorized user. That will include airport ticket agents, police, DMV employees, and countless other individuals.

Hackers are an obvious threat. But consider the threats posed by an underpaid cop or a blackmailed ticket agent. Any such insider will have instant access to sensitive information on millions of people.

This is the system you finance with your tax dollars. It’s worse than you ever imagined. It is, in the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, “security theater” at its finest.

If we had the power to do so, we’d abolish the TSA, fire its 56,000 employees, and turn responsibility for airport security over to the companies that have the biggest stake in making sure it’s done right: the airlines. We suspect the result would look a lot like airport security in Israel, a country surrounded by hostile states—where airline passengers don’t need to remove their shoes and can carry bottled water or baby formula onto their flight. All they need to do is answer a few questions from a security agent.

There’s a larger lesson here. Next time you hear a politician say we urgently need to “do something”—about anything—remember the TSA. If you care to do a little investigation, check out the politician’s campaign donors. Look into the politician’s background to find any business associates or family members who might stand to gain financially if he or she gets the “urgently needed” measures enacted. Always keep in mind that the actual priorities have little, if anything, to do with the stated needs.

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