Are we really at risk from Snacks on a Plane?

The Sunday Herald in England has this marvelous article:-

I love that headline! – Falacious Airline Risks: Indeed!
This is a long article that covers a number of points raised in and some information security forums I participate in and is begining to creep in to the awareness of other journalists. That the enhanced security since 9/11 is not just a cost to the airlines but also has an economic impact in other ways – loss of business and hence hence loss of jobs and hence bankrupcies.
One idea I would like to mention is the possibility that flights between the UK and USA will just not happen. People will fly between Canada and Continental Europe and take surface transport for the difference. Heathrow will cease to be a hub for transatlantic travel and revert to being farmland, crippling the UK economy and what is left of its aircraft industry. Of course Canada, Ireland and some European countries will take up the slack and have a more logical and less ‘politically correct’ (see the article’s note about ‘”positive” profiling’) attitude and hence not aggravate travelers and drive discount airlines into bankruptcy. The deregulation of the airline industry has seen the loss of many carriers a it has become more price agressive. A side effect is that we no longer have the confort in tourist class that we once did, “proper” meals on plates with knives and forks and napkins. The long security queues were just more of this growing discomfort, raising the baseline.

The statistics are in – tourist airline travel is falling off.
This is a Good article, well worth reading.
Many good points such as:

Airport and airline staff also point out that security rules are not followed uniformly and safety measures are inconsistent. … One pilot pointed out that their bag was searched, but not their laptop carrier. They were allowed to hold onto their mobile, torch and car keys, but one pair of their glasses had to be put into the hold – they were, however, allowed to hold onto another pair of glasses. Another staff member, just a few places behind the pilot in the security queue, wasn’t allowed to keep their mobile.

The first thing that screams out to me there is that the process is inconsistent. That in itself annoys people and leads to bad feeling, but from a security risk management point of view the “variable quality of the process” is also frightening. Either something – some object – is a risk or it isn’t. If it is then it has to be treated consistently.
But people are also going to be annoyed by the particular details. After the scare in the UK there was the knee-jerk reaction of confiscating all liquids and electronics – without warning!. In the aftermath people might accept the reasoning, but the restrictions still come across as draconian.
And not allowing passengers to carry on their glasses? As in ‘spectacles’? Oh my! How many people apart from myself wear glasses? And what about hearing aids? Those are ‘electrical devices’, aren’t they, with batteries in them. Now they may well both be ‘perscription’ prosthetic devices, but who walks round with their glasses and hearing aid perscriptions in their wallet? And while on the subject of ‘prosthetic devices’ … it seems that New Zealand disabled athlete Kate Horan has lost her running leg due to the new British Airways’ airline security measures just a week before the Paralympic world championships. (Full resport here). Because of the new security restrictions by airlines meant the leg had to be checked into the hold. She’s not alone. Adam Hills reports that his false foot regularly sets off the metal detector but on a recent trip to Montreal which was routed though the USA …

I was led to a roped-off area by an extremely polite young man, who asked such questions as: “Where is the prosthetic?” and “Do you mind if I just grab it for a second?” and “Does it cause you any pain at all?”

He then brought out a request I’ve never before encountered. “Sir, I’m going to have to swab the area where the prosthesis meets the skin for traces of explosives.” After ten minutes or so the procedure ended, although not before I had removed my shoes and belt, unbuckled my jeans and almost toppled over while trying to balance.

So its also ‘humiliate the disabled’ time. But at least he was allowed to use his prostheis to walk onto the plane. But I wonder how airport security would cope with a team who were attending the Special Olympics – a dozen or more people with artifical limbs or special mobility devices.

So what do we learn from this and from the other examples that Neil Mackay gives in the Sunday Herald article? As a security specialist I know full well that people get annoyed at security that gets in the way, that slows them down, and try to work around it. People will find alternatives to commercial airlines, turning to … well what do we have? Trains and automobiles? Private aircraft? It all depends. Some high profile comumnists have made the point that videoconferencing will take the place of much business travel. But what about real conferences and trade shows? What about vacations? Well some results are in: here in Ontario the figures for cross-border tourism (in both directions) have fallen off. But ultimately we are doing that old mistake of “preparing to fight the previous war”. The Sunday Herald article concludes:

Philip Baum, who runs the aviation security company Greenlight, edits the magazine Aviation Security International and is a former soldier in the Israeli army and head of security with TWA International, said: “After 9/11 we banned sharp objects, now it’s liquid. As long as we look for the items rather than the person we will not have a security system based on commonsense.”

He added the current policy was creating huge queues in airports which themselves could be targeted by suicide bombers as has happened in Israel. “Our eye is off the ball,” said Baum. “We are being driven by past events, not future possibilities. We are allowing terrorists to win.”

Any intelligent terrorist group will attack where security is weak. Walking around the city its not difficult for someone such as myself with a security infrastructure background to see many high risk areas. The question is, though, what are the terrorists trying to acheive? Do they want more drama like 9/11? Do they actually want to paralyze a metropolis? Do they want to undermine western culture? Bring about the economic collapse of the USA?

Sun Tzu recomends having a comprehensive security strategy, understanding yourself and understanding the enemy and the enemy’s objectives, as well as having a clear mandate that is communicated to the troops, who are in turn led by capable and respected commanders who are free from political interference. Its not hard to see how the USA fails on many of these points, how how fragmented the security strategy is, the lack of a clear mandate behidn the shibboleth of a “War on Terror“, and how pervasive the political interference is. Information Security is weak and chaotic; most government agencies get failing reports from the GAO, the DHS has been though a series of “Cybersecurity Czars” and the area is underfunded.

These notes for a speech by Jacques Duchesneau, President and CEO of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, points out:

Unlike traditional terrorists, these “new” terrorists have no interest in negotiating. They do not want to change the system; they want to destroy it. While traditional terrorists were motivated by social and/or political objectives, and were ready to use violence to wrest concessions from governments, today the situation is much more complex and much harder to manage. The “new” terrorism is punitive, has no clear demands, and is based on millenialist or extremist ideologies. Since negotiation is now impossible, the fight against terrorism has been profoundly changed.

We are dealing with a new kind of war, and as Mr Duchesneau points out, our dependence on technology is a security failing. But the generals are, as ever, fighting the last war.

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