The Human Factor vs. The Machines [TSA Thoughts]

Over the holiday weekend here in the States I had some lively discussions about the new TSA backscatter machines with family members. As with any political discussion I tend to be mellow and not get to heated with people, it just isn’t worth it to have a shouting match on Thanksgiving. One question that seemed to keep popping up is the notion that lack of privacy is worth overall safety. To which I argued that better trained agents would allow safety and privacy, over what the backscatter machines currently offer.

The Argument

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) argues that backscatter machines are necessary because they have no other means of checking for concealed weaponry on a person (things that do not set off metal detectors). This is incredibly valid and true, they have no way. Now whether backscatter machines solve this problem and whether or not these machines are health hazards is not important. What is important is that these machines solve a problem using a strict set of rules, that are defined to each traveler.

Making the rules known and steadfast is the security hole, or loop-hole if you prefer.

Everybody knows that lie detector machines can be beaten 1 , that is if you train hard enough you can beat a lie detector. The reason you can train to beat a lie detector is because you know how that machine operates – you know what AND how it is looking for lies. That knowledge is incredibly powerful and allows smart and creative people to find a way around those rules, without breaking them. Thus allowing them to ‘beat’ a lie detector.

All of the checks that TSA and DHS implement at airports work the same way: within a set of rules and procedures readily available to all travelers.

If a terrorist really wanted to bomb an airplane, nothing will stop him. He knows how to beat the backscatter machines by: avoidance (finding and airport/line without the machines), pat-down (placing the bomb in a body cavity that will not be felt). The only wild card in that process is the TSA agents watching over all the procedures. A TSA agent may see something out of sorts and pull them aside for further screening, they don’t know what the agent may see so the potential for failure is incredibly high – which is why most terrorists have multiple people set to carry out the same thing at the same time, thus TSA would not be able to react quick enough if they caught one of the people.


I posted this link a while back, but as reported by Cathal Kelly of here is how Israel does security: 2

Armed guards outside the terminal are trained to observe passengers as they move toward the doors, again looking for odd behaviour. At Ben Gurion’s half-dozen entrances, another layer of security are watching. At this point, some travellers will be randomly taken aside, and their person and their luggage run through a magnometer.

According to the article the last time Israeli security was breached at an Airport was 2002. 2002. That is absurd. Each guard at the Israeli airport is trained in observation and profiling to help stop potential threats, all without subjecting travelers to undue inspections or wasted time. Basically you are not beating a set of rules (other than the magnometer) you must instead beat a highly trained human. Now you know they are looking for ‘suspicious behavior’ but what that actually looks like to each agent differs.

The Human Factor

Israel knows that the greatest threat to a terrorists success is the human factor: the ‘will our guy be caught factor’. Any little slip up of a terrorist in Israel could lead to a search and arrest of the terrorist – the variables for success are so huge that to succeed is astronomical.

So the question that has been circling the net is whether such a system would work in the U.S. The answer is maybe, maybe not. The U.S. is massive in size compared to Israel and training that many people would be a huge financial cost and time consuming action. Better trained agents would have to be smarter and therefore paid more. Isn’t that what we want as a nation though: smarter and better paid people?

What if each U.S. airport security check point was required to have four agents on duty all the time watching the passengers, these agents would be trained by FBI/CIA deception experts to weed out potential threats. Perhaps only those identified as threats would be subjected to further screening, the rest of us can go back to bringing on our water and only having to be checked by metal detectors.

What would that do?

Maybe, just maybe, Bruce Schneier said it best:

It’s not even a fair game. It’s not that the terrorist picks an attack and we pick a defense, and we see who wins. It’s that we pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense and pick an attack designed to get around it. Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we get it wrong, we’ve wasted our money. This isn’t security; it’s security theater.

and later:

Airport security is the last line of defense, and it’s not a very good one. What works is investigation and intelligence: security that works regardless of the terrorist tactic or target. Yes, the target matters too; all this airport security is only effective if the terrorists target airports. If they decide to bomb crowded shopping malls instead, we’ve wasted our money.

I vote for better trained TSA, and a diversion of backscatter funds to help shore up ‘the human factor’.

  1. Hollywood teaches us so.
  2. This is important because Israel is under a much more imminent security threat than the U.S..
Originally posted for members on: November 30, 2010
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