Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Jumping at Shadows

As usual, Bruce Schneier has sensible things to say about the difference between hysteria masquerading as "security" and the genuine article.

Last Tuesday's bomb scare contains valuable security lessons, both good and bad, about how to achieve security in these dangerous times. Ninety minutes after taking off from Sydney Airport, a flight attendant on a United Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles found an airsickness bag -- presumably unused -- in a lavatory with the letters "BOB" written on it. The flight attendant decided that the letters stood for "Bomb On Board" and immediately alerted the captain, who decided the risk was serious enough to turn the plane around and land back in Sydney.

Even a moment's reflection is enough to realize that this is an extreme overreaction to a nonexistent threat. "Bob" is common flight attendant jargon for "babe on board" or "best on board," as in: "Look at that Bob in seat 7A." United Airlines apparently also uses it for some domestic U.S. flights to mean "Buy on Board" -- meals aren't provided gratis, but if you want one you must buy it. And even if it weren't, there's absolutely no reason to think that "BOB" is not just someone's name, written on the airsickness bag sometime in the past and left in the lavatory by a passenger who didn't even realize it. Why in the world would someone decide that out of all the possible meanings that "BOB" scribbled on an airsickness bag could have, its presence on this particular airsickness bag on this particular flight must mean "Bomb On Board"?

And why would the captain concur?

Security works best when people are in charge. I am comforted that the final decision to divert the flight was in the hands of the captain, and not a United Airlines executive who might unduly worry about the $100,000 the emergency landing ended up costing. The captain is in charge of the plane, and is the best person to weigh the risk to the lives of the passengers -- and his own -- against the inconvenience of diverting the aircraft.

More and more our security systems are run by computers and unalterable policies, turning the people at the front lines of security into mere drones. Computers now choose who to search carefully at airport security. Smart guards in lobbies have been replaced by less-skilled employees who mindlessly check photo IDs. This story serves as a counter-example, and demonstrates the correct way to design a security system.

However: if we are to expect airplane captains and flight attendants to make important security decisions, they need to be properly trained. The flight attendant who discovered the airsickness bag didn't react from reason, but from fear. And that fear was transferred to the captain, who made a bad decision.

Fear won't make anyone more secure. It causes overreactions to false alarms. It entices us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money, and give away ever-increasing civil liberties, while receiving no security in return. It blinds us to the real threats.

Speaking about the person who wrote those three fateful letters on the airsickness bag, Transport Minister John Anderson called him "irresponsible at the least and horrendously selfish and stupid at the worst." Irresponsible for what? For writing his name? For perpetuating common flight-attendant slang? It wasn't the writer who did anything wrong; it was those who reacted to the writing.
A few points of clarification: the "last week" referred to in the article was actually the final week of July, while the bomb scare in question occurred on an Australian flight. That aside, it's remarkable just how suggestible the human mind is to wildly erroneous interpretations of events. The idea that terrorists would actually go to the trouble of (mis)spelling out "BOMB" on an explosive device is just too silly to take seriously, unless they'd set their minds on failure from the start; in fact, it's just as silly as the notion that yet another set of Arab terrorists would go out of their way to conspicuously advertise their Arab origins on an aeroplane flight after the events of September 11, 2001 had done so much to heighten passenger vigilance. This is the real world we live in, not a Warner Bros. cartoon, and bad guys don't go around carrying "Acme BOMB kit" bags clearly marked as such for the benefit of their intended audiences.

By the way, Schneier's discussion of Houston's proposed Intercontinental (IAH) Airport Rangers program is also eye-opening for its sheer stupidity. This is the sort of buffoonery that makes one doubt claims that "the Bush administration is making us safer."