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Airport Security Is a Computer Problem

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In the few days since the attempted attack on Delta/Northwest Flight 253, backscatter X-ray scanners have been all the rage. These multi-million dollar machines, far too expensive for already-indebted states and municipalities to actually afford, can detect guns, they say. They can even detect small prisms of PETN and other dangerous non-metallic explosives strapped underneath clothing. Just this past week, a pundit speaking on an NPR morning show (whose name I unfortunately missed) opined that if Americans wanted to stay safe, they would simply need to accept the sacrifice of allowing the Transportation Security Administration to see through their clothes. (Backscatter X-ray machines, not surprisingly, more or less facilitate X-ray vision.) Other articles echo these sentiments. It's no big deal, they all say.

So, now that the consensus has been reached that we should all effectively strip naked for the TSA each time we want to visit our families for the holidays or go on a business trip, a perhaps predictable but still important and necessary question must be asked: where does one draw the line? The next time a terrorist attempts to detonate a bomb on a commercial jetliner, should we respond in kind by waiving the Fourth Amendment? After all, the TSA might need to stop by to see what we've got hidden in our homes.

The rational answer to this question is that the line is right in front of us, and it is drawn directly over the abstract notion of radiation exposure or any kind of harm, however negligible, beyond the inconvenience of wasted time. Even if it becomes law, I will personally refuse to pass through any sort of X-ray machine in an airport, backscatter or otherwise. Though I do value my privacy, the reason isn't that I'm especially prudish or that I'm some kind of liberal extremist -- it's just that I've had six medical CT scans in my life so far (the equivalent of about 1,200 X-rays), plus all the normal kinds of X-rays one receives at the hospital. Understandably, I try to exclude additional radiation exposure from my list of thrill-seeking activities, no matter how "negligible" the negligible doses are supposed to be. (The doses are always "negligible" because when no one keeps track of how much radiation you've received -- not even your doctor -- it's always assumed that you're starting from zero. See last week's New York Times for the revised view on how radiation doses from CT scans are in fact less negligible than doctors previously thought.)

In short, our complacency as a nation has gotten us to this point, and adding to the constantly-growing laundry list of inconveniences that Americans associate with air travel (boarding with such mundane items as shoes, Swiss Army knives, laptops, water, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.) isn't going to make us safer. What will make us safer, and what most of the pundits don't really seem to understand, is making use of the massive computing power available to us as a nation.

Consider for a moment the fact that I run a small business. I do not do run my business because I hate America. Rather, I run a business because I enjoy creating things and I like having the potential of eventual financial stability to look forward to. Now consider how many corporate Vice-Presidents of anything you've heard about who have boarded airplanes with explosive devices: zero. There's something to be said about a person's history in the workplace contributing valuable information to the risk screening process. Sadly, the TSA doesn't check the Social Security Administration's W-2 database while you're standing in line, nor does it look at the Internal Revenue Service's 1099 database, nor any state agency's unemployment payroll tax database. It doesn't even look at LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. In fact, aside from matching the name on the boarding pass to the name on your driver's license or other form of identification, the TSA doesn't really check anything. With a legal name change, a boarding pass and a good haircut, Osama bin Laden would probably get on board. The no-fly and high-risk checklists might as well be Excel spreadsheets full of random names, because from a database perspective, the security provided by the TSA is non-existent.

Consider as well my criminal record. At least to my knowledge, I have none. The person behind me in line might have robbed a bank last week, but the TSA wouldn't know that because the TSA doesn't consult the FBI or the police when you board. Instead, it conducts so-called random screening, not because useful information is unavailable, but because we simply don't bother using it.

As many have pointed out, the Israelis have considered a third factor for a long time that we in America strive hard to ignore: the fact that people are happy to share information if it will save them time or stress. El Al security relies on answers to simple questions to help gauge risk, but it also handles a much smaller volume of air traffic relative to the number of people going through a major U.S. airport such as Atlanta Hartsfield or Chicago O'Hare. Yet the fact remains that we live at a time when more information -- most of it already indexed by commercial search engines -- is shared and instantly available than ever before. The TSA ignores it.

So don't ask me to go through X-ray scanners, not when I've been paying my September 11th security fees for years (for no reason, apparently), and not when there are plenty of better options. Hire some SQL programmers, some college-educated screening agents, some linguists, and some sharp bureaucrats to run a Government Database Office if you need to, so that all of the agencies will cooperate -- but leave my civil liberties, and my medical risk profile, alone. I've got a plane to catch.

Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.