Tuesday, August 07, 2007

TSA Answers Tough Questions on Keeping Air Travel Safe

'Security guru' Bruce Schneier is the author of several books, including 'Applied Cryptography,' 'Secrets and Lies,' and 'Beyond Fear.' He also publishes a monthly newsletter called 'Crypto-Gram.'

Schneier is a strident critic of airport and aircraft security, and the TSA. He recently conducted an E-mail interview with Kip Hawley, head of that agency. Hawley deserves credit for submitting to a difficult -- even confrontational interview. In many cases, his answer seems to break down to 'you're right in principle, but for reasons I can't discuss we've seen that our methods are well-founded.' It's tough to accept 'trust me' as the answer to many seemingly illogical rules, but that's the nature of security systems based on secret intelligence.

Read the whole thing, if only to get the unsatisfying answers to questions like 'why can I carry saline solution in large bottles, but everything else in small one,' and 'how do you defense against the beerbelly.'

I'll just pull this highlight, on a topic that you don't hear much about:

BS: Let's talk about behavioral profiling. I've long thought that most of airline security could be ditched in favor of well-trained guards, both in and out of uniform, wandering the crowds looking for suspicious behavior. Can you talk about some of the things you're doing along those lines, and especially ways to prevent this from turning into just another form of racial profiling?

KH: Moving security out from behind the checkpoint is a big priority for us. First, it gives us the opportunity to pick up a threat a lot earlier. Taking away weapons or explosives at the checkpoint is stopping the plot at nearly the last possible moment. Obviously, a good security system aims at stopping attacks well before that. That's why we have many layers of security (intel, law enforcement, behavior detection, etc.) to get to that person well before the security checkpoint. When a threat gets to the checkpoint, we're operating on his/her terms—they pick when, where, and how they present themselves to us. We want to pick up the cues on our terms, before they're ready, even if they're just at the surveillance stage.

We use a system of behavior observation that is based on the science that demonstrates that there are certain involuntary, subconscious actions that can betray a person's hostile intent. For instance, there are tiny—but noticeable to the trained person—movements in a person's facial muscles when they have certain emotions. It is very different from the stress we all show when we're anxious about missing the flight due to, say, a long security line. This is true across race, gender, age, ethnicity, etc. It is our way of not falling into the trap where we predict what a terrorist is going to look like. We know they use people who "look like" terrorists, but they also use people who do not, perhaps thinking that we cue only off of what the 9/11 hijackers looked like.

Our Behavior Detection teams routinely—and quietly—identify problem people just through observable behavior cues. More than 150 people have been identified by our teams, turned over to law enforcement, and subsequently arrested. This layer is invisible to the public, but don't discount it, because it may be the most effective. We publicize non-terrorist-related successes like a murder suspect caught in Minneapolis and a bank robber caught in Philadelphia.

Again: compliments to Hawley for answering a tough critic.

Hat Tip: Danger Room and Government Executive

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