Monday, December 28, 2009

New, and unpredictable, security measures

In the wake of the weekend's attempted destruction of a plane en route to Detroit, governments are imposing new security measures at airports and on board internationally bound aircraft.

Details from the Transportation Security Administration are sketchy, because one of the TSA's stated goals is to make security less predictable. However, reports from non-U.S. governments, airlines, and passengers suggest these among other measures may be put in place:
  • Double-screening, with initial security checkpoints supplemented by pre-boarding screening at the gate;

  • Pat-downs, paying particular attention to the upper thigh and groin areas, something that the TSA has always had authority to do but has rarely done out of concern for privacy, but which have taken on new importance since the weekend attack apparently involved explosive powder taped to the would-be bomber's thigh;

  • Restroom monitoring, looking to limit the amount of time that someone onboard an aircraft might be removed from visibility and thereby having time to assemble an explosive device from components smuggled onboard; and

  • Last-hour restrictions on carry-on items and movement within the cabin, aimed at keeping people from carrying out plots during a landing sequence.

The last bullet, keeping passengers in their seats, strikes me as quite unnecessary. Collecting blankets and making people put away laptops for a whole hour is unlikely to do much more than result in bored, chilly passengers.

Remember, the weekend plot was focused on destroying a plane, not hijacking it in the style of Setpember 11; should we feel better if terrorists start blowing up planes 90 minutes before landing rather than waiting for the last hour? I doubt it.

I do, however, strongly support the other measures, which make good sense. I think it's also time that we stop whining about privacy issues relating to backscatter machines that can see through clothes. Prudish Americans doubtless imagine that everyone is desperate to see them naked, but as any nudist will tell you, absent sexual context, nudity simply isn't that exciting -- and seeing whatever someone is concealing beneath clothing will really make it hard to smuggle things onto planes.

It's time that we start taking security seriously, demanding results rather than assurances. These are good steps in that direction.

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