The New TSA: Touch, Search and Assess

12/01/2010 02:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology

Thankfully we have not yet seen a suppository bomber trying to bring down an airliner. Invasive screening would take on a whole new meaning. Touching "our junk" would be the least of our problems as we passed through security.

The Naked Skies

That we need to protect our skies is undeniable; that we need some form of screening is obvious. But we are wasting our time and money using our current methods. The real problem with airport security screening procedures rests in the fact that we know them to be inadequate, inconvenient, invasive, and inconsistently applied. A shoe bomber attempted to bring down an airplane, so we now all take off our footwear at airport security. Why then after the underwear bomber failed are we not all required to take off our skivvies? Would a failed bra bomber force women to undress before boarding? What about that suppository bomber?

One would-be terrorist tried to create a bomb by combining two reactive fluids, so now we are all restricted to that ridiculous quart bag and 3 ounces per fluid container. What would prevent four or five conspirators from combining their 3 ounces once on the airplane? Our security screening methods make little sense.

While I would enjoy blaming TSA, the problem is us, the traveling public. The obvious answer to our screening woes is whole body scanners. These are quick, effective, safe, and non-invasive compared to a personal pat down in our nether regions. Faces are blurred and images are not stored; you cannot be identified with image. Screeners would see hundreds or thousands of images a day; your body is not that interesting to warrant special attention. Nobody is that into you. Yet we protest the introduction of these machines, while protesting invasive pat downs, while expecting our skies to be safe. Once again we the public expect something for nothing.

Sadly we encounter here another corruption of our thinking as a consequence of religious brainwashing. Instead of celebrating our bodies, we are taught that nudity should be avoided. We are taught a false modesty about the most natural of human functions. And so we cannot stand the thought of an anonymous image of ourselves in undies being viewed by perverts just dying to see us in the raw. I think we should grow up. Whole body scanners are by far the least troublesome of all screening solutions. I would gladly submit to a temporary partially undressed image rather than have to remove my damn shoes one more time. One is fast, convenient and effective, the other annoying, inconvenient and completely useless.

Homeland Security

While I place blame squarely on us for outdated Victorian ideas of modesty, I do not give a pass to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with its annual budget of about $50 billion. Probably a great deal more is spent on classified programs. Their mandate falls into four major categories: guarding against terrorism, securing our borders, enforcing immigration laws and preparing for natural disasters. Perhaps all $50 billion is well spent in ways we cannot know since thwarting terrorists must largely be done in secret. But we have evidence that DHS efforts may ignore the basic elements of good risk assessment and management.

DHS clearly does not properly distinguish between danger and risk. Let's review that for a moment. Like DHS, people commonly confuse risk and danger as one and the same phenomenon, but they are radically different ideas. That matters because the confusion inhibits a clear discussion of risk management. We should try to be precise in our thinking about improving safety.

Danger exists as an inherent condition; risk measures the probability that the you will encounter the danger and that the danger you encounter will have a bad outcome.

Let's say we know a hungry tiger is lurking in the jungle that we must traverse to get to the golden city on the other side. We can take a shortcut to beat the competition, which will increase our chances of encountering the beast, but also improve our odds of getting the gold before anybody else. Or we can go the long way, which will increase the probability that the gold is gone when we arrive but also significantly reduce any likelihood of seeing the mad cat. As usual, the greater the risk we take the greater the potential reward. But note that in this equation of risk and reward, the danger represented by the tiger remains constant. What changes is our approach to the danger. Our risk of becoming cat food will increase or decrease depending on what path we choose to follow, but the ravenous tiger is dangerous no matter what we do. Danger and risk are not synonymous. We need to understand this distinction if we have any hope of assessing the potential benefit of any action against the risk of taking that action. For any contemplated activity, we must evaluate and understand the nature and extent of the associated risk relative to the underlying danger. Then we can determine if the potential risk meets the gold standard of risk management: Is the risk commensurate with the reward? Without this analysis we are just groping around blind.

High probability events with high impact readily command our attention. In our daily lives we are used to dealing with high probability events with low impact. We can and usually do individually and collectively largely ignore low probability events with low impact. As a society, though, we do quite badly with low probability events with high impact. For example, in 2007 Congress mandated 100% screening of ships bound for the United States at more than 600 ports of origin. We are talking here the import of nuclear weapons. The problem is that the technology for scanning about 15 million containers every year simply does not exist. The Bush White House opposed the mandate stating that the scanning requirement was "neither executable nor feasible." This philosophy ignored the importance of evaluating impact versus probability. Imagine the impact of a nuclear bomb exploding in a major U.S. city smuggled through one of our ports. Has this extraordinary threat been a major focus for DHS? Apparently not, for we appear to be no more protected in 2010 than we were in 2007. We are not devoting significant resources to reducing the probability of what would be a catastrophic event.

We cannot live without water, yet our water supply is extremely vulnerable to terrorist attack. The nation's water infrastructure is comprised of three main elements: supply source from lakes, rivers, and wells; treatment facilities; and the distribution system. Some money has been spent to protect supply sources, but they remain vulnerable, and nearly no resources have been devoted to protecting the distribution system. Consider this: less than one-twentieth of a quart of ricin (or anthrax) can render one million gallons of water toxic. That volume of water fills more than 100 miles of six-inch diameter pipe, anywhere along which the toxin can be injected. Impact versus probability? Can we imagine a consequence much worse than contaminating the water supply to millions of people? But we seem to be spending little on reducing the probability. Instead we take our shoes off at the airport.

We focus our attention and resources inappropriately like this because we ignore well-established good practices in risk assessment and management. We need to understand and design our programs and policies to accommodate the differential consequences of impact versus probability. If we did we would be protecting our ports and water supply instead of (or in addition to) disrobing at the airport. Worried about public health and safety? Do everything possible to reduce smoking before anything else. We could begin by stopping our tax payer subsidies to grow tobacco. We would next tackle the epidemic of obesity instead of cowering before the soft drink and junk food industries. We have low hanging fruit that we continue to ignore and instead spend billions on phantom concerns.

We have assessed the risks. We know where we are vulnerable. Now let us gather the courage to massively redirect our resources to those that are high probability and high impact. Walking barefoot through airport security while five TSA officers look on makes little sense if a nuclear bomb is at the same time entering one of our ports unobserved.

Give me whole body screening at airports any day so we can start devoting our efforts to protecting us from the truly catastrophic. I would rather someone glance at my partially naked butt than kiss my butt goodbye.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World (Jacquie Jordan, Inc)( Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.