Posted by: David Stewart | January 12, 2011

How a Lesson from Chips Could Redefine Security Theater

The 9-11 attacks on the US had a big impact on the traveling public. As we approach the 10th anniversary, what changes have happened?

  • Immediately, the security check of passengers was taken away from airline employees and federalized.
  • Armed air marshals were reportedly added to random flights
  • Sharp instruments (box cutters, knives) were added to the list of what was forbidden to be carried on board. This was because the attackers used these tools to hijack the airliners.
  • In 2002, shoes began to be scrutinized more closely, so all foot ware needed to be removed. This was because Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" used his shoes as a delivery vehicle for an explosive.
  • In August of 2006, liquids were added to the controlled list because of the danger of assembling a bomb in flight
  • In December of 2009, the so-called "underwear bomber" demonstrated that someone could smuggle a bomb onboard a flight in their skivvies. This caused the introduction in late 2010 of microwave scanners which would reveal such a bomb and enhanced pat-down procedures.

The concept of using a jetliner as a weapon of mass destruction targeting the symbols of the US’s power is not new. Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel "Debt of Honor" introduced the idea of crashing a jet into the US Capitol building during a joint session of the US Congress with the US President addressing the body. So nobody should have been surprised by the 9-11 choice of weapon.

But the approach to prevent this has been purely reactive. Every tightening of passenger screening has been a reaction to a previous attack.

My daughter calls this "Security Theater", which claims that these procedures are intended to make the traveling public feel safer. For example, there have been reports that the security checks for airport ramp employees is seriously lacking compared with passenger checks and screening of packages for explosives has holes.

Note that the one airline at greatest risk of attack is the one with the fewest actual attacks. El Al, Israel’s national airline, achieves this by focusing on finding attacks rather than screening for objects.  The two times I flew El Al in 2008, I was expecting some serious scrutiny of my person and possessions and planned for it in my travel. I was quite surprised that my personal dignity was not violated as much as with some other airlines, and not as much as with some other passengers.

Perhaps we can take a clue from a famous incident in the development of semi-conductor manufacturing at Intel. For some time, failures in chip manufacturing would be analyzed and the root cause would be cleaned up. But Intel decided at one point to clean up the entire process, making the factory into an immense clean room. This solved so many latent problems and improved yields tremendously.

Could we take more of an El Al approach in the US?


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