Is airline security making us safer?

The answer is no, according to Bruce Schneier's commentary in Wired. He says the CAPPS and its replacement Secure Flight, which "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," are basically worthless because the lists they check against are no good. As he says,

    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.

He also lambasts the TSA's Registered Traveler program and Verified Identity Pass' Clear program, adding,

    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.

I agree on all points. If we really want to get serious about airline security, let's cut the theater and get to what really might make a difference.

P.S. My stepdaughter asked me at Boston's Logan airport as we embarked on our Thanksgiving journey to see Nanna and Gramps in Myrtle Beach last week if it was OK to bring her car keys in her purse, or if they would be confiscated. I said that of course she could bring her keys. Then I remembered this story.

P.P.S. Here's an idea a disgruntled smoker I was speaking with during my Thanksgiving sojourn to Myrtle Beach had: Why not just take all the lighters confiscated at the security checkpoint over to the exits from the secured areas, so disembarking smokers don't have to scrounge around for a light after a long flight? After all, according to Sen. Ron Wyden back in 2003, TSA was spending $17 million to dispose of confiscated items—and that was before lighters were added to the list, if memory serves. Why not just recycle the non-hazardous items? There must be some reason, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what it might be. Maybe the lighter industry is lobbying hard against it? (Click here for a PDF of all the prohibited/allowed items.)

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