Enforcement through embarrassment and trend of security entitlement

“Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” said Benjamin Franklin in an oft-quoted comment. But the matter of access versus security is tightrope men have walked throughout history. Once upon a time going to the airport to catch a flight involved as much security as going to the local bus stop. Folks just showed up (dressed like they were going to Sunday Mass, however), purchased the tickets, and walked on out right up to the gate.

It was a different time and the threats were nearly non-existent. No longer.

In securing any system there’s a balance to be decided upon: how much can you secure the system before you make it functionally inaccessible to those intended to use it? Put another way, how much ease of access can you build in before you leave so many security holes that it becomes functionally indefensible? In network and computer systems, this is a matter of the so-called “triple-A”: authentication, authorization and accounting. But the only things a user of those systems is requiring to move are data requests and responses. In a physical system such as air travel they are requiring actual, tangible items to transit – the most specific of which is themselves. The system must be secure or people die, and that’s too high a price when people consider a smoking hole in the ground with aircraft parts strewn all over a field somewhere. But if the security adds so much delay to the travel that takes longer to fly than to simply drive or increases the risk to one’s health beyond a certain level, then the system’s security is becoming such a burden that system itself is no longer functional for the need it was designed to handle.

This is the dynamic playing out in the press and in airports around the country this past week. The introduction of full-body scanners to the security arsenal certainly adds to the ability of the TSA to detect threats that would remain undetectable before. These scanners were first introduced back in 2006 and have been in limited use since then. It raises the same privacy concerns now as it did then: the images produced look very much like a nude shot of the person undergoing the scan. Ah, but there’s more, now. It seems that if you choose not to allow that scanner to be used, the TSA has implemented a full-body pat down procedure that leaves no part of your body untouched. This requires the passenger to permit perfect strangers to grab them in places they wouldn’t even let their spouses latch onto in a public place this this. As any reasonable person can see, this is a serious issue and deserves serious consideration.

This is at the heart of what’s causing the increased frustration and resistance from the public lately: they see the TSA and Janet Napolitano being completely dismissive of that concern. Worse, both of them are taking an attitude that the public is being unreasonable and, frankly, giving the impression that they are offended at even being questioned on the matter.

On Monday, Napolitano said TSA and her department are acting responsibly “with good intelligence, with risk-based analysis,” and with partners around the world, but DHS can’t be the only ones working to protect citizens.

“Look, everybody has a role to play,” she said. “And if people don’t want to play that role, if they want to travel by some other means, of course that’s their right. This is the United States, of course they have that right. But again, this is all being done as a process to make sure that the traveling public is safe.”

As much as she tried to spin that politely, people quite reasonably interpret those remarks as a public official saying “Don’t like it? Take the bus.” This is the executive-level version of what I refer to as an attitude of “security entitlement.” People working in any field of security tend to start edging toward a feeling that anything they do to secure whatever they’re responsible for is justified and that they are owed the deference of anyone who has to make use of that system or facility. It manifests in security guards who bark out orders and display impatience at anyone coming into the building they “serve” or network/computer admins who delay or deny access permissions simply because they can. The TSA people at the airport are certainly no different and, in seems, tend to develop and display this attitude faster. The recent incident at San Diego where a man recorded his interaction with TSA as they tried to make him go through the scanner and then responded in a very aggressive manner when questioned on their procedure has drawn such attention and made such a folk hero out of the man precisely because the public has witnessed this feeling of entitlement on the parts of the TSA agents with their own eyes.

On top of all of this is the huge overreaction by the TSA when someone decides they don’t want to be scanned by the new devices. The reports are pretty uniform that TSA agents immediately begin shouting about an “opt-out” loudly enough to be heard over the entire security area and then making an ostentatious show of isolating the individual for this groping “pat-down” process. There is absolutely no reason to do that. These TSA agents carry radios that can carry their voices much further than they can shout and a simple, quiet comment into that radio about having an opt-out would be all that was required. It is uncalled-for to make such a scene that every other security line is made aware of the opt-out – unless, of course, the scene is what you were after all along. I can find no valid reason to undertake the actions the TSA has been repeatedly seen performing unless they were looking to make the decision to opt-out as embarrassing as they possibly can. It’s intimidation to force people to just go through the scanner, plain and simple. And intimidation tactics against people with reasonable objections to the procedures in place is not security. It is not what I’m paying the taxes for. And it’s most certainly not the quality of leadership I want in a Secretary of Homeland Security.

This nonsense about all the shouting and making the big deal about someone opting out of the scanner should cease immediately. An independent panel consisting of industry experts and regular citizens should investigate the safety of and the procedures used with these scanners to specifically address the concerns given by the public. There was a time when those magnetomers we all walk through to get into the boarding areas, the courthouses, and even some schools were untrusted devices that some people simply would not walk through. I remember stories going around that they would cause pacemakers to stop or give people with medical implants electric shocks and such. When’s the last time you saw someone concerned about their health or privacy walking through those? Trust is earned over time and these scanners – if they are, indeed, as benign as is claimed – will gain that trust as they are used. To try to intimidate people into using them and to be dismissive of their concerns will only prolong that process and will wind up damaging our security posture in the long-term. Secretary Napolitano should worry less about telling people to go Greyhound and more about making sure her department is doing everything they can to support the liberty of American citizens as well as their security.