Security theatre

Airports need to have rigorous security procedures in place, that's true. But do they need to take images of each passenger's naked body to do so? Do they need to physically touch each passenger's genitals? What rights should each passenger be expected to give up just in order to be allowed to travel?

More importantly, are all these expensive, humiliating and degrading procedures really improving security, or are they all just security theatre (in the eloquent words of Bruce Schneier)?


It's important to get things in perspective. What is really the probability that an attempt will be made on a given flight? What is the probability that the individual passenger currently being humiliated is really a threat at all?

The statistics show that the numbers of malevolent passengers is vanishingly small. The chances of you dying in a car crash on the way to the airport, or being swallowed by a tsunami, are higher than the chances of dying through a deliberate attack on the plane. So where should the line be drawn, between necessary precaution and unacceptable rights violation?

Knee-jerk regulations

One significant problem is that many of the regulations are ill-considered, knee-jerk reactions to last week's failed attempt. As a result of the ridiculous "shoe bomber", who presented zero risk from his clownish fumbling with a cigarette lighter, suddenly all attention was on shoes and everybody had to take off their shoes for a while. An incompetent attempt was made using some kind of liquid explosive (which many experts doubted would ever have created more than a bit of smouldering), and suddenly all liquids including tap water are banned.

The ridiculous "underpants bomber" tried to hide his foolishness with a blanket on his lap shortly before landing, and so the reaction was to immediately prohibit passengers from having a blanket on their lap in the last hour of the flight. And prohibited from going to the plane lavatory in the last hour of the flight too, of course, because that's what Mr Underpants did. Ridiculous restrictions which punish and frustrate the millions of ordinary passengers, while doing nothing to make it any more difficult for the malicious ones.

The tap water ban was an annoying inconvenience for those who want to drink their water while waiting the obligatory 2 hours before takeoff, but it was alleviated by the ability to refill it with tap water after the check. Then the airports removed the drinking fountains, issued only lukewarm non-drinkable water from the toilet sinks, and made the airport bars stop refilling bottles with tap water too. Of course this has now just turned into a money-making venture, and long since ceased to have anything to do with security.

The ridiculousness of collecting all the dangerous, possibly-explosive confiscated liquids into one huge collection point, just where huge numbers of passengers are waiting to go through security, shows how pointless it all is. None of the reactionary rule-makers seem to have even contemplated the risk of an attack at these unprotected queueing areas, because they're too busy reacting to the last media circus.

Where does it stop?

One question to ask is, why is all the attention on aeroplanes? Why is the risk inside an aircraft deemed to be any higher than at any other crowded public place or transport system? Will we see the same restrictions being imposed at entrances to every shopping mall, every train and underground station, entrances to every motorway or road tunnel? Where does it stop?

The politicians and security "experts" say that the whole theatre is justified because the threat to aircraft has been shown to be real and current. Yet in the last several years there hasn't been one seriously threatening situation on any international aircraft at all. And in the same timeframe, how many people have died in car crashes in just one single country?

The risk of dying in a car crash can't be reduced to precisely zero, and neither can the risk of dying in an aircraft. Yet that seems to be the goal. In particular, the reactions against precisely the events of last week's escapade show that those in charge are petrified of exactly the same thing happening again "on their watch" and will subject the passengers to absolutely anything in order to prevent them being responsible for a repeat. That's not the way to control security.

Useless restrictions

Another example of the stupidity is the restriction on pastes and other such substances, really dangerous things like toothpaste and nappy cream. As well as the stupid insistence on putting such things in exactly this kind of plastic bag (which the airport conveniently sells to you at a hugely inflated price), they limit the total volume of such items per passenger.

These restrictions have absolutely zero effect on a determined group of passengers, who each take on less than the restricted amount and put them together once beyond the security check. Yet they completely needlessly inconvenience individual law-abiding passengers who just want to take their toothpaste on holiday.

Similarly, any resourceful attacker could fashion a weapon much more dangerous than a pair of nail clippers by taking any number of allowed items through (such as glass bottles from the duty free) - yet the ones who get their possessions needlessly confiscated are just trying to get from A to B.

Recent escalations

This obsession with control and humiliation is of course of benefit to the security organisations and the politicians, both of which profit financially from forcing the tax-paying public and the plane-flying ticket-holder to pay extra for these measures. And until now the measures have been annoying, irritating, time-wasting, costly, stressful and on occasion humiliating. But recent decisions have escalated the war on passengers immensely.

Two types of full-body scanner are currently being introduced in airports worldwide. Many are now mandatory, if a passenger is selected at random to go through the scanner instead of the regular metal detector. This has immediately added extra burdens on the innocent, law-abiding travellers, most noticeably health risks from the exposure of the whole body to radiation (either millimetre-wave radiation or X-ray radiation).

In particular, the X-ray radiation is known to be ionising radiation, which in sufficient doses can cause serious genetic problems including an increased risk of diseases such as cancer. The backscatter X-ray machines claim to use a low dose of radiation but the health effects are as yet unknown and many believe further studies to be necessary to prove that they are safe. The alternative technique using millimetre wave radiation is not thought to be carcinogenic but may still have unknown genetic impact due to the similarity with microwaves.

A second obvious problem is the privacy concerns, with the machines capturing and transmitting electronic pictures of the passengers' naked bodies. The pictures are then viewed by security staff, and despite repeated claims that the pictures cannot be stored and are immediately deleted, that has been proven by recent leaks to be not true. For many people that is a completely unwarranted invasion of privacy, and for the images of naked children it would certainly be illegal under any other circumstance.

In many airports which have introduced these controversial machines, there is no choice whether the passenger wishes to submit to the invasive imaging, the passenger is just randomly selected for the scan rather than the metal detector like the other passengers. Except of course it's not random selection, and cases have already been seen where attractive women claim to have been specially selected for the naked viewings. And the first leaks of abuse from poorly-trained security staff are only a matter of time. In such an airport, if a passenger objects to the unknown health risks, unwarranted invasion of privacy and humiliation of such a scan, they cannot fly. And some cases suggest that these passengers will also be threatened with a lawsuit for objecting. This is still a completely innocent passenger, remember, who has done nothing wrong.

Alternatively, some airports offer a "full pat-down" as an alternative to the full body scan. And in a further escalation, the guidelines for these searches have also recently been "enhanced" to include a thorough physical inspection of the genitals and breasts of the passenger. At this point the line has clearly been crossed, it's physical abuse, it's molestation, it's sexual assault and grounds for prosecution in any reasonable mind. It's not what the passenger agreed to when they bought the ticket, it shouldn't be a condition of flying, and it's something even a fully trained police office is not allowed to do to a completely innocent person. So why do some people think it's acceptable just because it's at an airport?

For children passengers, it's doubly unacceptable. Recent videos have already shown a screaming 3-year-old girl being molested at a US airport, and given that this is just the latest escalation in this war, it seems extremely unlikely that the abuse will stop here. Families with children are going to have to find another way to travel, or just avoid travel altogether.


People are already objecting to the scans, but this does not appear to have any influence on the security procedures. The decision-makers are still 100% in favour, obviously because they are profiting from it. If the pat-downs are still an alternative option, it seems inevitable that they will become ever-more invasive and offensive, just to persuade people to subject themselves to the naked scanner instead. So what can we as innocent passengers do?

We can petition our politicians of course, but they are often profiting from the sale of these expensive machines too, so they won't help. Plus they always have the excuse that they have no power in the matter whatsoever, it's all international rules and the world changed 9 years ago so suddenly security arguments trump any other argument at all.

We can refuse to fly, or refuse to fly from those airports which are using the scanners. The US agency TSA offers a list of airports which have the scanners, but there are no details what kind of scanners, or what the alternatives are, or which flights are affected, which makes making a flight decision more difficult. Some airports offer their own information pages, but these are also deliberately vague.

We can complain to the airlines, and tell them that their passenger numbers will suffer unless they persuade the airport to behave in a reasonable manner to the customers. But of course the airlines can't tell the airport what to do either. So we're left with rising air fares (to cover the huge cost of the additional useless security measures), declining passenger numbers (due to people objecting to being treated like terrorist cattle), airline profits diminishing, and presumably public bail-outs from our tax-payer money to help out the poor suffering airline industry. We lose all our privacy rights, pay for the privilege, and those in charge just keep on profiting.

Manufacturered threats

Some people continue to believe that the current fever is justified by the continued threat of terrorism (magically only targeted at aircraft in flight, for some unknown reason). And recently in Germany some secretly-acquired information hinted at possible terrorist attacks in Germany, justifying the theatre once more.

And conveniently just a couple of days later, sure enough a detonater was found in luggage! And it might (only might?) have been headed to Germany - gasp! Terrorist attack, headlines around the world! Tighten security everywhere, let's subject all passengers to even more humiliating procedures because they're probably all guilty!

Until it quietly emerged that the detonator was put there deliberately by security staff to test security. There never was a terrorist threat, it was manufactured by the security organisations and they conveniently let the fervour get reported worldwide before admitting that the detonator was just a "test suitcase".

One has to wonder, how many of the other so-called "threats" were either deliberately planted (and harmless) devices, or patsys placed there by security firms? That would be a neat way for them to take even more of our rights away, wouldn't it?

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