The TSA and “Security Theater”

Posted by Mike on 2011.08.15

Protected by Absentia Security

If you have been listening to any of the many high profile discussions about the effectiveness of the TSA and the screening procedures that they follow then you have probably heard the term “security theater” bantered around.

So what is “security theater”?

The term actually is used to mean that the measures that are employed provide the appearance of security that may not actually exist. It is in fact a valid security concept and something that is frequently employed in the security world.

I know, your disappointed that it isn’t just meant to deride the TSA.

Part of my background is being a licensed security professional and performing security duties at different events and even catching shop lifters (Which is great fun!) and I can tell you that not only at events but in the retail world the use of security theater is present.

The last time you were at an indoor stadium concert you may have noticed that people are positioned along the outer rim of the floor and checking to see if you have a ticket or wrist band to gain access to the floor. Some people will jump the wall and get caught. Some will jump and not get caught. the point of positioning people along the wall is not to prevent everyone from passing over the wall but to discourage people from doing it.

Of course if everyone jumped the wall there are probably not enough people to do anything about it. :-)

In the retail department one of the valid techniques is to make an announcement that suggests that security is actively working and monitoring the premises. The announcements usually don’t have any relation to obvious signs (“Security please monitor sector 5.”) and cause people to think that they might be observed by security.

Is there no security? Is it a complete buff? Well you just don’t know do you? And that is the point. There could be someone monitoring the area and the directions may be relevant to someone watching the cameras.

One final note about where you see security theater is something you have probably seen before. If you drive through a construction area and see a cop car parked alongside the freeway and there is no one in there, this is probably an indication that the local authorities have decided to present the appearance of presence by the law enforcement.

It is much cheaper to place an unused vehicle that suggests that there might be someone there (bet you picked up on that, huh?).

Cool they saved you some money! Kinda like buying that security sticker for your car rather then installing a security system.

Pinching the Pennies

The simple fact of the matter is that the TSA does a lot to do screening of prohibited items and is somewhat effective. They don’t catch all things and there are ways to go ahead and get things past the security check points (several news story talk about things and people getting past the TSA). There are several methods of smuggling items past security that the TSA don’t actively check for.

Do you really want to do a full body cavity check every time you get on a plane?

The TSA could create and enforce more extensive checks, such as the gate screenings that occasionally happen, that would require more resources. Instead they implement a “random” approach. By using more extensive techniques they pose a simple problem: Will today be the day that everyone boarding a particular plan gets another screening before boarding?

Sure 90% of the time they won’t but this could be that 10% where they do.

If a jobs is worth doing…

If there are more extensive and thorough techniques available that could be used and are occasionally used, why not use them all the time?

There are a couple reasons that the TSA won’t implement full and extensive procedures on a regular basis:

  1. Money
  2. Privacy

It turns out that by providing random checks and the occasional increased presence the TSA are able to reduce the overall training and manpower required to perform the job they have been tasked with. We wouldn’t be willing to pay for the type of equipment, manpower and training that would be required to perform full time extensive checks and presence. Finally it turns out that the flying public, not just the air crew and frequent flyers, would bristle if this became the case.

Keeping it in Perspective

When talking about all the things that happen with the TSA it is easy to get upset and frustrated, whether it’s talking about the increased security or the apparent failures to find and prevent things like teenagers climbing in a planes wheel well. But if you stop and take a look on the next plane your seated in keep in mind that there is a low chance of a handgun tucked in a carry on bag or shotgun under a passengers seat.

I like to remind myself occasionally that in all the good and bad that goes with the TSA, I enjoy not sitting next to a passenger with a flame thrower.

- Mike

Articles to see:

  1. Comedian is placed under gag order by Federal Judge after sneaking a knife past TSA at SLC International. Why the gag order? Because the method of concealment was not a “work of technological genius”. In May he was sentenced to one year probation.
  2. The TSA provides a list of banned items that they are screening for as well as the “3-1-1″ rule for liquids and gels.
  3. The FAA also regulates items that are permitted in both checked and carry-on luggage.
  4. Teenager sneaks past ground security to stow away on plane and falls to ground.
  5. TSA finds 13 knives in carry-on luggage at Baltimore-Washington International.

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