Applying Skeptcism to Airport Security

Skepticism is commonly applied to things like ghosts, UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine, and other pseudoscientific claims. But a recent episode of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe reminded me how the tools of science and skepticism can be used to figure out what works for just about anything.

Airport security has been on everyone’s mind lately with the failed underwear bomber and the new scanners that see through your clothes, so I appreciated the SGU’s interview with so-called “security guru” Bruce Schneier.

They spoke about what the evidence shows with regards to what works in airport security. I’m going to pull some highlights, but if you want to give it a listen you can download it here, or it’s episode 235 on iTunes.

Since 9/11 our trip through airport security has become plagued with rules such as limits to the size of shampoo we can carry, to having to discard your fingernail clippers, to putting your shoes through scanners. But according to Schneier these have basically been a waste of money, and the things that have proven to be effective are reinforced cockpit doors and convincing passengers to fight back. This is what stopped the underwear bomber.

Security measures that are put into effect in airports are not decided on by what evidence shows will work, but rather politics drive what’s put into place, which is driven by the stories that are told of previous terrorist attacks.

Schneier points out that we’re always fighting the last battle: “Take away guns and bombs, terrorists use box-cutters; take away box-cutters and knitting needles, they put explosives in their shoes; we screen shoes, they use liquids; we limit liquids, they put explosives in their underwear…”

He says there is a psychological need to focus on what terrorists used in the last attack, similar to the power testimonials have to drive other pseudoscientific claims. But terrorists already know what they can’t use, so the money that’s going towards things like plastic baggies for storing bottles of liquids would be better spent on intelligence, so plots can be foiled before they reach the security checkpoint.

In the interview they also spoke about the ideas being floated around that profiling people by certain criteria could help weed out terrorists, but Schneier describes how this can actually make airport security worse. If terrorists know what type of person airports are screening for (which can be deduced by flying often), they can avoid being screened by not fitting the profile.

Many people said that the underwear bomber fit the profile of a terrorist, so he would have been caught if security was screening for these characteristics, but in reality there wasn’t much about him that should have roused suspicion. For example, the fact that he paid for his ticket in cash wasn’t odd because Nigeria has a cash economy; the fact that he didn’t check his bags wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, my husband almost never checks bags when he travels; and the rumour about him buying a one-way ticket, well that was just a rumour.

Instead of profiling, Schneier says that random checking is what works best, because terrorists have no way to know whether or not they’ll get checked.

Schneier and the SGUers call current airport security “security theatre”, because really it’s only putting on the guise of good security. To optimize airport security, governments should be putting money towards intelligence.

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2 Responses to “Applying Skeptcism to Airport Security”


  1. 1 soothsaber January 26, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I see all the time at airports where they just about cavity search the “little old (white) lady” and let the 30 yr old Iranian man pass right through without a hitch. They searched me three times on one trip just to get on the plane! After one time, I should have been cleared.

  2. 2 EnlightningLinZ January 31, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    soothsaber – you missed the point – make the searches random so it’s unpredictable, even if that means searching little old ladies and you. If they always search Iranians then Iranians won’t be used in terrorist plots (why do you think this man was suspicious anyways? Has there been an Iranian terrorist attack that I haven’t heard about?). Have you listened to the podcast I linked to?


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