My Blog

Bruce Schneier: TSA profiling is not cost-effective

I went to a show last week at Terminal 5. Upon getting my booze wristband at the door, a security guard asked to glance in my purse, which I opened. He asked if I was carrying cigarettes. I said no. He thumbed me along to the next person scanning tickets. The guard then proceeded behind me to my slightly disheveled, white, 6’3″ boyfriend and gave him a full body frisk, confiscated a bag of M&Ms, and poked through his individual cigarettes. (Meanwhile, I was wearing a coat I hadn’t yet checked and could have smuggled in a small firearm.)

I met up with friends, who recounted similar sexist profiling, despite the presence of both female and male security.

An ethnically Middle Eastern attorney commented on Sam Harris’s blog last week that he thought TSA profiling of men that looked like him was necessary. “Profiling is just common sense put into practice. To say otherwise demonstrates nothing more than a deluded view of political correctness.”

Politically correctness to hell, common sense means a method that will produce desired results. But profiling is more counter-intuitively ineffective than Sam’s initial post “In Defense of Profiling” would suggest.

Sam listed a follow-up guest post  by Bruce Schneier, a security expert, who does a pretty good job of breaking it down:

The number of actual terrorists is so low, almost everyone selected by the profile will be innocent.  This is called the “base rate fallacy,” and dooms any type of broad terrorist profiling, including the TSA’s behavioral profiling…

A wolf in sheep’s clothing is just a story, but humans are smart and adaptable enough to put the concept into practice. Once the TSA establishes a profile, terrorists will take steps to avoid it. The Chechens deliberately chose female suicide bombers because Russian security was less thorough with women. Al Qaeda has tried to recruit non-Muslims. And terrorists have given bombs to innocent—and innocent-looking—travelers. Randomized secondary screening is more effective, especially since the goal isn’t to catch every plot but to create enough uncertainty that terrorists don’t even try.

It’s a very well-cited argument; I suggest reading the whole post. Sam was supposed to have a rebuttal post and usually has some compelling arguments on controversial issues. But it’s been a week. It looks like he might have realized he was check and mated here.

Dear Terminal 5:  You’re a nice venue, although your profiling methods obviously aren’t working by the mass amounts of weed I’ve observed being smoked on the floor every time I’m there. I suggest you frisk everyone or frisk no one. Or frisk only those that meet specific criteria like two-sizes-too-large sweatshirts. Or else, one day you’ll fail to frisk the right one, and you could have a coked up, 100 lb., baby-faced, Asian girl sniper taking down your security team one by one from the third floor balcony. Hypothetically, of course.