Monday, November 19, 2001

"Security" in the Age of Marketing

After the events of 9/11, we want to be very sure that nothing like this happens ever again. We need to Take Steps. Ideally, we would do something effective. What would this be?

I sent the following suggestions to my Congresscritters:

  • The policy of "cooperate with the hijackers" is out. Totally. The hijackers will not let you go if you don't resist -- they'll turn you into a cruise missile.
  • Armed guards on all flights. On jumbo jets, two or three. I'm not sure if they should be uniformed or plainclothes -- the terrorists have very good intelligence and will probably know the identity of the guards as soon as they are assigned.
  • Give the flight attendants Taser- style stun guns (and, of course, training in their use). These shoot electrified darts, allowing the user to knock down a knife-wielding passenger from a safe distance. It's also important that the attendants carry them at all times -- they're useless if they're in a locker somewhere.
  • Put the "black boxes" on the ground. Use a satellite data link (on all large planes now) to continuously transmit flight data and voice to a ground station. I submitted this one "through channels" after the ValueJet crash; it has gotten an enthusiastic response at the lower levels of the bureaucracy and has been ignored everywhere else.
  • Allow cellphones on aircraft, on the principal that it's impossible to sneak up on a treefull of crows. Anything out of the ordinary happens, and it will be reported by somebody. This would require a cellphone "cell" on the aircraft, to connect to the regular phone system on the ground. The airlines are investigating this now as something nice for their passengers. Yes, there are phones available on the aircraft; I've never seen anybody use one. In an emergency, I don't think anybody could do the credit card jive that those phones require.
  • Make the transponder turn on automatically on takeoff. I'm surprised it doesn't already. Alternatively, add another transponder controllable only from the ground.

As you might expect, I got a form letter back saying "thank you for your input". Other groups have made other good suggestions. In particular, the Airline Pilots Association suggested reinforcing the cockpit doors and setting them up so they could only be opened from the inside.

Anyway, these are effective suggestions, based on stopping 9/11 type takeovers. So what are we actually doing?

  • Reinforcing cockpit doors. Good.
  • Making much fuss about carryon baggage inspection. I am unaware of any recent incident where a Bad Guy smuggled something nasty onto a plane through the security checkpoint. Note that the 9/11 hijackers were not carrying anything not allowed.
  • Getting ridiculous about banning pocket knives, knitting needles, sewing scissors, and similar lethal weapons from carry-on luggage.
  • Making much fuss over presenting photo ID many times. The hijackers all had valid ID.
  • Arming the cockpit crews. Well, if it makes them feel better .... If the cockpit door is locked, the only way into the cockpit is to get the pilots to open it from the inside. Easiest way for a hijacker to get the pilot to come out is to threaten to kill a hostage. A stun gun in the cockpit is useless. Give it to the flight attendants, who can use it effectively. It'll give the "air rage" folks something to think about, too.

What's going on here? This is the Age of Marketing. The Powers that Be aren't interested in what is most effective -- they're interested in the "perception of security". Basically, this seems to involve making things as rude and inconvenient as possible. What about actually improving security? Nobody cares. The perception is the only thing that counts.

This is not a new phenomenon. The first wave of hijackings involved guns. The metal detectors and X ray machines screened out the guns. This worked. Note that something like this does not have to be 100% effective -- it's an effective deterrent if it convinces the Bad Guys that they have a real chance of getting caught.

After the Lockerbie bombing, where the bomb was carried on board by a passenger, the airlines started asking the "has your luggage been out of your control" questions. Note, however, that the Lockerbie bomb was carried by the inconveniently pregnant Irish girlfriend of the bomber, disguised as a tape recorder. The woman who carried the bomb could have answered honestly that she had not been given anything to carry by an "unknown person" and that her luggage had never been out of her control. The little questions might have more effect on drug smuggling. Remember the Dutch guy who got caught in Singapore with a couple of kilos of heroin in his luggage. He claimed that he was carrying it for an acquaintance and he didn't know what it was. The Singapore court said basically, "nobody's that stupid" and hanged him, to much international outcry.

As time has gone by, we have added other doodles and twiddles to our "air security", with no indication that any of it works.

  • Warnings about unattended luggage. I thought the airport thieves would take care of unattended luggage before the security people did.
  • Towing unattended cars. A good idea, simply from a traffic point of view. I am not aware, however, of any car bombs near airports.
  • ID on checkin. A stunt that illegal aliens have been using for years is to have a person with good ID check in and then pass the boarding pass to another person who doesn't have ID. In any case, forged ID is very easy to get, and this fact is not going to change at all soon.
  • Making passengers turn on their laptop computers to make sure they're really computers and not bombs. This is simply ridiculous. They don't do this with electric razors, Game Boys, CD players, or anything else that could hide a bomb just as easily.

All of this is stuff that some bureaucrat thought would "increase security". In reality (except for possibly towing unattended cars), it just adds inconvenience. Perhaps it's another bureaucratic power trip -- "You'll stand in line for two hours because I bloody well say so".

Prediction -- the next time a bunch of terrorists want to mess up the air transport system, our current precautions will not slow them down any more than the pre- 9/11 precautions slowed down the 9/11 hijackers. Seems to me that the 9/11 hijackers said, "OK, we'll play by your rules and we'll still win." They did. We have to make sure that our precautions are effective, and not just marketing. Life Lesson: Stage magicians and marketers work on exactly the same principals. Distract the attention from what's really going on. Rely on people seeing what they want to see.

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