Sunday, April 6, 2008

Next Step

Reading TSA’s Evolution of Security blog the other day left me feeling like I’d just finished attending a workshop conducted by the latest management guru. Passenger Engagement is somehow or other going to use technology to allow the passenger to take ownership of their check-in experience. I re-read the blog and watched the video but still came away scratching my head. The intent seems to be to relieve stress while still providing appropriate levels of screening to prevent an attack. I’ve questioned here and on the TSA blog if a regression analysis has been conducted on which procedures work and which don’t. Adding management consultant terminology to the mix causes me some concern. It as though TSA is masking shortfalls by claiming a new focus on the customer.

TSA takes shots from an angry public that is in a rush to get to their destination. Tempers flare and as TSA officers attempt to do their jobs, sometimes things go awry with harried passengers trying to get through security with screaming children and way too many carry-on items. The bigger criticism though is TSA screeners are trying to prevent another 9/11 by looking for the same modalities as was used seven years ago. The implication is that TSA bases their procedures assume terrorist tactics remain static. As was seen in Iraq, road-side bombs quickly went from being a hodge-podge of left over ordnance to sophisticated explosives designed to defeat the armor on vehicles. It may be that the core assumption, attack either the aircraft itself or use the aircraft in the attack, misses the next move. What if TSA is, without realizing it, creating a prime target for attack with the huge numbers of people waiting to go through security? Carry-on bags aren’t screened until they are sent through the scanner, a weapon could be detonated in the common area before any TSA personnel would have a chance to notice something unusual.

The obsession with liquids has also left me puzzled. Liquid explosives are tricky to manipulate on the best of circumstances. Mixing the solutions together in a cramp aircraft lavatory has a low probability of success. This is not to say smuggling explosives on-board isn’t a viable plan just the method seems to be wrong. There are many plastic explosives that can be carried in a large enough quantity to create havoc. Detonators could be disguised as personal electronic devices. Explosive sniffing dogs may not always detect the explosives or a new formula may developed that the dog has not be trained to detect. Most of the technology at use in American airports now is geared towards metallic weapons. Ceramic or plastic weapons and components could be smuggled through without detection. All of this though assumes the aircraft is the ultimate target. A car bomb or suitcase explosive detonated outside the security line would create as much chaos and potential casualties as an attack on-board a jet.

Military planners are always admonished in their efforts to not fight the last war (although inevitably their assumptions are based on the past). Basing security procedures on some new management technique isn't the answer either. TSA and others responsible for our security need to constantly think about what the next move may be and not fall into the trap of the preparing for the last attack. We can be sure our adversaries don’t.

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