Trolling the head of the TSA
November 17, 2008 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Trolling the Head of the TSA: Bruce Schneier [previously], consummate voice of sanity on all issues of security, co-authors an article in The Atlantic [previously] demonstrating how weak and ultimately pointless most of the new security practices put in place at airports since 9/11 are by, among other things, boarding airplanes with large amounts of liquid, using fake boarding passes he printed off his computer, and wearing an "I <3 Hezbollah" t-shirt. TSA head Kip Hawley then responds on the TSA's blog. Schneier then responds to the response on his blog. Hawley then leaves a comment to that post. Schneier fires back again in his monthly newsletter. Quite an interesting and intelligent debate, despite both men humorously falling victim to the idioms of the medium and getting increasingly snarky with each passing post. [via this month's crypto-gram, a good read all the way around.]
posted by ChasFile (29 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. I've been following this for a while (Schneier's newsletter is a must-read, IMO; even if you're not a computer-security geek, it's worth it for the increasing amount of non-computer security stuff that's in there) and just get infuriated every time I read the last bit of drivel to come from Hawley. He seems to embody everything that is wrong not only with security, but with bureaucracy, the Bush administration, and government in general.

As Schneier's response hints at, I was really disappointed by some of the stuff they did in the Atlantic article. Smuggling a large quantity of liquid onto a plane really only demonstrates that that TSA is crappy at enforcing a policy — it doesn't really get at the real problem, which is that the policy is stupid. It's a restriction that "protects" against a threat that various explosives experts have said doesn't really exist, and is grounded more in Hollywood and the wet dreams of paranoid control freaks like Hawley than in any real data.

Taken at face value, the ability to sneak through security with liquids, or using forged boarding passes, might cause the idiots in Washington to give the TSA goons more power. If anyone can get through, then clearly they need more power, right? If only they had Stasi-like efficiency, and enforced the ID checks and no-liquids rules with an iron fist, everything would be okay — that's the message that these demonstrations sends to bureaucrats and politicians.

Having more rigorous enforcement of stupid, nonsensical rules isn't a step up from what we have now, which is lax and arbitrary enforcement of stupid, nonsensical rules. The problem is in the policies themselves.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:51 AM on November 17, 2008 [12 favorites]

This is pretty hilarious.
posted by Damn That Television at 12:01 PM on November 17, 2008

I once saw a author on C Span's Book TV who wrote about the problems with airport security (I can't remember the name but I don't think it was Schneier) and he said that the standard policy is to let suspected terrorists board planes and then follow them to see what they do.
posted by Bitter soylent at 12:06 PM on November 17, 2008

Hawley does give reasonable and defensible answers considering the criticism. He ultimately doesn't necessarily address the underlying point Scheier is suggesting, but he's selected to implement a stupid policy. Tell someone their job is to prevent terrorists getting on planes and they'll erect a whole picket fence of obstacles. Is it really very possible to demonstrate that security measures are working? Not easily against an effective baseline of zero terrorism attempts. Is it possible to demonstrate that you have erected a picket fence? Sure, show the fence. That's the basic problem.
posted by dhartung at 12:12 PM on November 17, 2008

They can't even keep weapons and drugs out of prison. And they look in your butt in prison.
posted by einer at 12:27 PM on November 17, 2008 [15 favorites]

From the TSA blog: We identify dozens of terrorist-related individuals a week

You would think that the arrest of dozens of "terrorist-related individuals"* a week would make the news in some way, because I haven't heard of a single terrorist actually being stopped by the TSA.

*what the fuck does this phrase even mean?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:28 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

You would think that the arrest of dozens of "terrorist-related individuals"*

*what the fuck does this phrase even mean?

posted by jonmc at 12:32 PM on November 17, 2008 [8 favorites]

Also, funny story: I was reading Schneier's article in The Atlantic while in the security line at Phoenix Sky Harbor last night; they informed me that I was going to go through extra secondary screening.

Of course, I already knew this because my boarding pass had SSSS in big fuck-off letters right on it. If I were a terrorist, I would have either just rescheduled or, you know, given my terror-equipment to one of the other terrorists who didn't have the SSSS on their boarding pass. Or used a forged pass, or one of a thousand other ways to bypass airport security.

It's a huge waste of money, manpower, and time, and while I appreciate that Kip Hawley is at least trying to be open to change, it's clear that he, his team, and just about every employee of the TSA is unbelievably retarded.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:47 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

The TSA is the poster child for the old canard "Republicans say government doesn't work, then get elected and prove it."
posted by king walnut at 12:52 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Optimus: Schneier says much the same thing in the latest Crypto-Gram:
It is simply impossible that the TSA catches dozens of terrorists every week. If it were true, the administration would be trumpeting this all over the press -- it would be an amazing success story in their war on terrorism. But note that Hawley doesn't exactly say that; he calls them "terrorist-related individuals." Which means exactly what? People so dangerous they can't be allowed to fly for any reason, yet so innocent they can't be arrested -- even under the provisions of the Patriot Act.
Basically it's a category of people they've created in order to look like they're doing something Really Useful™.

And when you get right down to it, while they're touting this number (dozens per week, meaning hundreds per year) as a good thing and a sign of their effectiveness, it really just exposes their uselessness yet again. Out of all these individuals that they identify, how many have been arrested and prosecuted for attempted terrorism? How many have actually turned out to be terrorists? I bet it's zero. That means they have a 100% false-positive rate.

It's the world's most expensive tiger repellent.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:54 PM on November 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

"terrorist-related individuals"* *what the fuck does this phrase even mean?

Kip tells us "Selectees are those identified by intelligence and law enforcement as needing extra attention because of ties to terrorist activity. Think of them as facilitators, or people identified during an investigation. The facts don’t suggest that the person would likely attack a given flight..."

In other words, they're people to whom the TSA should pay absolutely no attention, because they're not actually going to do anything the TSA needs to be concerned with.

In other other words, we pay extra attention to them because they're on a list, which they're on because we pay extra attention to them. And that proves the system works.
posted by ook at 1:00 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hawley does give reasonable and defensible answers considering the criticism.

I was left with the same impression. While no amount of technology or training will address the underlying intractability of the problem (which is Schneier's larger point - spanning much of his oeuvre - essentially: more security of the type most often employed [technologized, heuristics-based, inflexible] often makes us less safe) given the constraints he is operating under Hawley does seem to be demonstrating a fair degree of critical thought. The conversation is also interesting to me as a case study in arguing across a pretty large information deficit; much of the misunderstanding seems to arise from the fact that neither individual seems to know what the other's motives are, let alone what they are talking about.

*what the fuck does this phrase even mean?

Schneier of course raises the same question, and Hawley responds in his comment on Schneier's blog:
TSA, through the airlines’ matching systems, does identify dozens of people on the Selectee list every week. Selectees are those identified by intelligence and law enforcement as needing extra attention because of ties to terrorist activity. Think of them as facilitators, or people identified during an investigation. The facts don’t suggest that the person would likely attack a given flight; otherwise they would meet the no-fly definition. We do not ‘catch’ them; we identify their travel and give them a little extra scrutiny when they come through the security checkpoint.
Personally, I'm still not quite sure...
posted by ChasFile at 1:00 PM on November 17, 2008

Drugs into prisons isn't a good example because people will always want drugs in prison so that is pretty much impossible to stop so long as human beings are corruptible, ie, forever. But there isn't necessarily an infinite "demand" for terrorists so anything that does reduce supply will reduce the problem. Of course, US policy has generally increased "demand" but I'm guessing President Obama (how I love to type that!) will set better policies, at least to some extent.
posted by Maias at 1:20 PM on November 17, 2008

I recall a FPP from some time ago that had links to TSA employee self-written bios. And it was so innocuous: they were just average people, doing the normal "intro mail" talk such as "Been living in Virginia for 10 years, wife and two kids, like to rock climb on the weekends". They're not jackbooted thugs crowing about how awesome are their creeping fascistic tendencies.

So I'm kind of sympathetic: they aren't retarded, nor is Kip Hawley stupid or venal; he's fairly intelligible and coherent. These people have jobs that some- perhaps many- of them took for good reasons, but it's for an institution that is fundamentally a failed enterprise. I think that's the problem: Schneier is trying to prove TSA shouldn't exist, while Hawley is simply saying "Given that it exists, I don't think we're that bad at what we're trying to do". I agree with Schneier- the TSA can't ever really succeed, by definition- but sympathize with Hawley. Because really, these aren't bad, stupid, evil, awful people; they have jobs no different than some HR rep who might not agree with every policy, but who is paid to enforce it.
posted by hincandenza at 1:21 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hear hear, hincandenza. It's important not to paint caricatures of people we disagree with, because that undermines the important point that lies beneath. Mr. Hawley seems a reasonable man trying to do his best in an unreasonable position.
posted by echo target at 1:39 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

They're not jackbooted thugs... really, these aren't bad, stupid, evil, awful people; they have jobs no different than some HR rep

There's this phrase by Hannah Arendt about fascism (you know, the original, Fascism Classic, not these newfangled lite versions) that seems relevant here. Something about the banality of something. Seriously, "they're just hardworking organization men, following orders from on high" is not the most compelling defense that comes to mind when people are searching our bags and lining us up for shoeless X-rays and pat-downs and taking copies of our hard drives. Is that really supposed to make me feel more sympathetic to them?
posted by RogerB at 1:54 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

So I'm kind of sympathetic

Fuck it, I'm not. Look, it isn't that I disagree with you - most of them probably are nice people, and echo target has it right as well, it is important not to paint caricatures.

However, and I'm very sorry to Godwin this thread this way, you could say the bloody same about most SS and Gestapo personnel.

They're doing useless stupid shit that is hurting real security, and it should stop. The fact that you'd probably be able to have a beer with them at a night out bowling doesn't change that.
posted by DreamerFi at 1:54 PM on November 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Looking at it from a different angle, Jeffrey Goldberg is NOT a terrorist, just a reporter for the Atlanic. Now, the TSA isn't supposed to keep Hizbollah flags from planes, but terrorists.

And since the TSA didn't produce a single false positive on him, Mr. Goldberg just proved to us that the system works!

Same for the passengers who didn't report him on account of suspicious activity in the Senator Larry Craig Memorial Stall -- maybe they just grokked that he isn't a terrorist.
posted by sour cream at 1:57 PM on November 17, 2008

you could say the bloody same about most SS and Gestapo personnel.

Not really. Both tended to attract sadistic and psychopathic personalities -- biographies I have read of SS and Gestapo show them, almost universally, to be as abominable in their private lives as they were in their professional undertakings.

I think a more apt parallel is the German soldier, many of whom were pressed into service and, but for a residual cultural antisemitism and supernationalism, might not ordinarily have cared one way or the other about the Jews or the war. But they were duty bound to do the unspeakable. Our TSA employees might not honestly believe they are doing anything to prevent terrorism, and they might be perfectly lovely people in life, but they are required by their jobs to behave in useless, stupid, and often bullying manners.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:04 PM on November 17, 2008

Astro Zombie, I'm fine with that comparison as well, I'm not here to go "Third Reich!" on the TSA - I just want to stop the stupidity.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:10 PM on November 17, 2008

You're right about Hannah Arendt's discussion of the banality of evil. The whole theory is that evil tasks -- and so, by extension, useless or stupid tasks -- can be normalized and therefore done by normal people, rather than by jackbooted thugs.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:19 PM on November 17, 2008

"Trolling" is the wrong word. Trolls aren't interested in debate or progress on issues, they're only interested in getting a rise out of people. Bruce Schneier is, without exaggeration, trying to save lives. Kip Hawley is an obstructive, self-important idiot whose sole reason for existence is the frantic coverage of his own ass. Hawley never directly answers questions with anything that addresses the issue. Hawley continues to repeat "talking points" long after they have been debunked. If there's anyone "trolling" here, it's Hawley.

Hawley should resign, and Schneier should be appointed in his place. Hawley's position is untenable. By all means, he should blame Bush Administration idiocy for that: it's the perfect time to do so, and it happens to be true. But while he continues to obstruct and retard transport security in the USA, the risk of terrorist attack will remain more or less unchanged (because non-idiotic terrorists can trivially circumvent the TSA), but the risk of disrupted flights and massive inconvenience to ordinary travellers remains extremely high.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:36 PM on November 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

My beef is not the tremendous waste of money on the stupidity that is TSA security measures. They need to spend the money to keep a significant segment of the populace flying, those who are terrified about another attack and are mollified by presence of the TSA procedures because they are too dumb to realize that they are a waste.

My beef is that they are not clever enough to come up with a way to fool these aforementioned rather dim travelers that is much less costly of MY time and patience. The vast majority of travelers have to put up with this shit just to appease the stoopid among us who are comforted by the security pageant as they prepare to board their flights to Omaha or Milwaukee or Little Rock.

Please, Lord, make it stop.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:36 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think that’s a key point Mental Wimp. It’s not only that there is a better way to do this.
It’s not only that there are much more useful methods to make air travel more secure.

It’s not even that with these methods that are just for show, made up of whole cloth, that don’t fool anyone into thinking it’s money well spent.

It’s that they don’t care - because they’re profiting from the trade (even though it’s largely manufactured).
More than just a German soldier just doing his job, Hawley is like Mother Courage maintaining authority, just or not, simply in order to continue.
Geared only towards the survival of the trade which will ultimately destroy everything it sought profit by and to maintain.

Keep treating people like enemies, eventually you start to manufacture enemies.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:44 PM on November 17, 2008

For being such a big, stupid, easy target, Schneier resorts to very dubious tactics in his part of this. Would I feel better if the TSA had gone nuts and detained someone for 72 hours because they had a Palestinian flag in their baggage? That whole aside, and all the stuff with inflammatory T-shirts, was totally trolling.

And that they are going to "only catch the dumb terrorists"? You could say the same thing about murderers - you think we're catching the smart ones? Yes, shockingly, the prisons are filled with the dumb criminals, not the good ones. That doesn't mean we should let them all go, or pack up and stop trying.

The bigger, more salient point, and a much harder sell to the general public, is that we haven't earnestly caught any terrorists with this crap, because the continuing terrorist threat does not exist. There was one attack in 2001. There's been a shoe-bomber and Aqua-Teen Lite Brites since then. The wisest response to 9/11 would have been to arrest whoever was left over, prosecute them, and continue our lives as normal.
posted by Bokononist at 5:50 PM on November 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

Hawley should resign, ... Hawley's position is untenable. By all means, he should blame Bush Administration idiocy for that: it's the perfect time to do so, and it happens to be true.

His position is listed in the Plum Book, so it's more than likely that like many others he will submit a formal resignation at the very least effective January 20. He has a history of working for Republican Presidents when not in the private sector, so probably doesn't even want to work for Obama, but you never know.

In any case, I consider it an enormous indicator of clue and non-hackery that he is even responding to Schneier at all, not the least in the fashion that he has done so. I really wonder how many Bush administration officials would respond to a mere "blogger" (as the press would no doubt describe him) in this way. Maybe his answers weren't what you wanted to hear, but he's at least respectfully listening enough to formulate them. We need more of this in government, not less.

His entire career, by the way, has been in technology and transportation. He ain't no horse lawyer.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Trolling" is the wrong word. Trolls aren't interested in debate or progress on issues, they're only interested in getting a rise out of people.

Perhaps. It was used in the OP in a titular way, more to convey the nature of the post in a few words than to capture in full nuance the nature of the debate: you'll notice I used it in the first sentence and then never again.

But there is probably some merit to your criticism; I'll own that. On the other hand, I stand by my use, for both the reasons above and because some of Schneier's later tactics (The inflammatory t-shirts, for instance) can only be described as trolling the TSA.

posted by ChasFile at 9:10 AM on November 18, 2008

“because the continuing terrorist threat does not exist.”

That is incorrect. Strictly speaking. Threat from terrorism does exist. Has it been overblown, used to justify ridiculous and only marginally or even tangentially related security and other political controls, yes. But are there people actively out there working to kill you? Most certainly.
I would argue folks were continuing their lives “as normal” before 9/11, even though there was still a terrorist threat.
But I agree, it shouldn’t get the kind of attention it does. Odds of Joe Blow dying in a terrorist attack are pretty low.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:45 AM on November 18, 2008

I recently flew back into the country from Belize where we acquired, among other souvenirs, a lovely hand-carved walking stick. It's about 3 feet long, made of heavy wood, and steel-tipped. The TSA people let us carry it onto our connecting flight in Miami, but confiscated our tube of toothpaste. Geniuses.
posted by EarBucket at 8:45 AM on November 19, 2008

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