The High Cost of Security

Recently, an economics professor wrote a short piece for USA Today talking about how TSAs rituals do not make us any safer.

While that was the headline, the article posited that we’re probably spending more money than we need to on security. In that respect, Art Carden (the assistant professor of economics at Samform), is probably right. But, I think whether we are any safer should be a decision left to security and law enforcement professionals.

Carden brings up Bruce Schneier’s popular “security theater,” concept. While Schneier is a valid and respected security expert, he’s not the only one and there are plenty of people that disagree that our entire system is all just security theater. There are numerous layers of security, some are theatrical but many others, often the ones you don’t see, are very real and very valuable. I’ve written often about the fact that there is some value to a little security theater, but without something to back it up, it’s just that.

Carden notes that Schneier says there are numerous other ways to attack the system with things you can get through airport security. Considering my own training in Krav Maga and various self-defense programs, along with some additional ad hoc instruction in using common items (including those you can lawfully carry onto an airplane) as a weapon, I have no doubt this is true. So does that mean we should throw out the entire security system? I can pretty much guarantee you, with as much media consulting I do, there would be thousands of people screaming if we started taking out metal detectors, body imagers and so forth from the checkpoints. Remember, these were all things people wanted to prevent from being blown up at 30,000-feet. There would also be a long line of people hauling all sorts of bombs, guns and everything else back onto an airplane.

I always ask my training classes if they think that no matter how much we do someone could still successfully attack the system, and they always answer yes. So why do we do any of this? That answer to is always the same, deterrence. It’s the same reason we lock our doors when we leave our house. We know that a dedicated criminal can still break in, but why make it easy? Why leave the front door open?

Carden’s next point is that TSA is pushing more of us to drive, which is not as safe as flying (true). But, passenger enplanements have steadily increased ever since 9/11. While there was a period of time immediately after 9/11 where people were driving instead of flying those days are well past as more people are comfortable with flying again.

I believe Carden is absolutely right when he cites political scientist John Mueller and civil engineering professor Mark Stewart who believe the US is spending far too much money on security from a cost-benefit perspective. I’m an aviation security expert, not an economist and I suck at math, but it’s not a one-for-one trade. You can never account for the amount of deterrence that the system provides. Unfortunately, the bad guys never call and tell us when they don’t do something because of the security measure they saw place.

Also, Mueller and Stewart used the failed Times Square bombing as the cost comparison. Try using 9/11. It was these types of arguments that over the course of 1990-2001 eroded most of the effective security measures that many of us tried putting into place. On 9/11 most of the world sat stunned while those of us in aviation security wondered what took so long. The door had been opened for decades because there wasn’t a cost/benefit to additional security measures based on the perceived threat.

And actually, if somehow Art reads this blog post, I’m very open and would be very interested to hear more about the economic impacts of 9/11, terrorist attacks and so forth. It’s an area I tried delving into in the first chapter of Practical Aviation Security but could only get so far because there wasn’t a lot out there.

Occasionally however, we do find out that deterrence and security does work, as in the case of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi. Smadi was caught up in an FBI sting while apparently planning to bomb the Dallas-Fort Worth airport or Dallas Love Field airport but noticed there was too much security and decided to go after the fountain in Dallas instead. The FBI arrested him before he could complete the plot. How many more Smadi’s are out there that we don’t know about? That is the problem. We just can’t measure deterrence until we actually catch people and get them to tell us if the measures worked on them and hope that the criminal will be honest with us.

I think the TSA is definitely moving in the right direction with risk-based security. And I think the TSA sometimes spends money on the wrong things but RBS is not one of them.

What we rarely hear about are all the attacks that have been thwarted. I wish we would hear more about them because I think we all need to be more alert and understand that terrorists groups have long been fascinated with aviation and continue to try to figure out ways to bomb planes, and if given the opportunity, yes, they will fly them back into buildings again. We have an enemy that continues to test the locks on our front door, so let’s not leave it standing open for them.

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One Response to The High Cost of Security

  1. Jeff: Another thought-provoking article. Thank you. As a person still “in the trenches” trying to get a bit of a shrinking budget for security purposes, I can tell you that the further we get from 9/11 without an incident, the harder it is to get funding for security projects. The standard line of thinking is – we haven’t had a problem, so why do we need to do X? I use the reasoning that I have my job to keep them out of the news for failure to recognize potential, as well as real, security concerns. So far this has proven to be pretty effective. It also helps that I am stubborn!

    The ROI will never be fully realized on security related items until the unthinkable happens. Then we hope that it happens to the “other guy,” just not at my airport. As security professionals we need to study what went wrong somewhere else, evaluate what we have in place that would not allow it to happen at my airport, and adjust tactics, training, and procedures accordingly. Sometimes just adjusting attitudes is needed, therefore it is the least expensive method, and should be the most productive.

    The true ROI for security is that if nothing bad happened here, then we are investing in the right places. We need to realize that airports are are a system of systems and that we all support each other. The weakest link will affect us all and that each airport is a portal into the system.

    Each of us is the “door” to which you refer, and all of us have the responsibility to ensure that our door is not only not left open, but is truly secured. Because as I am constantly reminding people, just because a door is closed, does not mean that it is secured.

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