Everything We Know About Security Is Wrong

So says counterterrorism contrarian Bruce Schneier. And the transportation security administration is listening.

In late july, Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley announced a change in his agency's air travel screening policy: Effective August 4, cigarette lighters would no longer be banned from airplanes.

Explaining the measure in an interview with the New York Times, Hawley acknowledged that confiscating lighters at security checkpoints—the TSA's policy for the last two years in the wake of a failed shoe-bombing attempt—had been a waste of resources. Terrorists, he noted, might just as well ignite bombs on airplanes using small batteries (or, as he didn't note, matches).

"Taking lighters away is security theater," Hawley told the Times. "It trivializes the security process."

Among those struck by Hawley's about-face was Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis man alternately called a "security guru" (The Economist), "the smartest guy in the room on security" (the ACLU), and "unquestionably the world's foremost security technologist" (Connections). Schneier, who wears the graying beard and thinning ponytail of a computer geek chieftain, didn't earn such accolades by mincing words.

"There have been exactly two things since 9/11 that have made air travel safer," Schneier said recently over spring rolls at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant on Nicollet Avenue. "Reinforcing the cockpit door and telling people to fight back in the event of an attack." After a brief pause, half-devoured roll in hand, he reconsidered. "Well, maybe three," he said. "I'm on the fence about sky marshals."

One thing Schneier isn't on the fence about is the billions of dollars that the TSA has spent making air travelers pour out their water, take off their shoes, and until recently, throw out their cigarette lighters. All of this, Schneier argues, might make people feel safer, but it does little to actually improve security.

Waiting for his bowl of pho to arrive, a triumphal smile crept across Schneier's face when he brought up Hawley's recent announcement. It wasn't just that the TSA head had shifted policy. It was also that phrase: "security theater." Schneier coined it back in 2003, to encapsulate what by his lights was a parade of new measures that conveyed safety but accomplished little.

Such elegantly blunt criticisms have helped make Schneier a leading counterterrorism contrarian. A prolific writer—he has published several books, maintains regular columns for Wired.com and Forbes.com, and has a blog and electronic newsletter with a combined monthly readership of about 200,000—Schneier is also a seasoned public speaker, having addressed, among other august bodies, the House of Lords, the World Economic Forum, and the U.S. Congress.

And that's just in his spare time. Schneier's paying job is chief technology officer for BT Counterpane, a network security company he founded in 1999 that last year was bought out for tens of millions of dollars. In addition, Schneier is quoted almost daily in one media outlet or another, on everything from data mining (usually a bad idea), to paperless voting (always a bad idea), to buying stuff with a credit card online (in the grand scheme of things, not such a bad idea).

But he's most passionate about the government's response to terrorism since September 11, which he says has been both out of proportion to the threat and overly governed by our collective fears. His pho placed in front of him, Schneier picked up his spoon and jabbed the air with it. "We're one terrorist attack away from a police state," he said.

ON A RECENT morning at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Schneier set out to foil airport security.

Dressed in a black blazer and jeans, Schneier approached a stone-faced Northwest Airlines ticket agent and informed her that he'd lost his ID.

"Do you have a credit card in your name?" she asked.

"No," Schneier answered.

In accordance with airline policy, the agent printed Schneier's boarding pass, scrawling "NO ID" on it. Schneier thanked her and headed to the security line, where he would receive extra scrutiny.

In the end, though, Schneier was allowed to board his plane with little difficulty, even though the airline had no idea who he was. In so doing, Schneier demonstrated why the so-called "No Fly" list—the backbone of the airport security system—is, as he puts it, "a complete waste of time."

The No Fly list is a confidential database of people deemed by the federal government to be too dangerous to fly under any circumstances (albeit, as Schneier wryly points out, "too innocent to arrest"). A secondary classification, the lesser-known "Selectee" list, requires passengers to submit to a luggage search and wanding. But because, as Schneier demonstrated, anyone can check in without an ID and be treated as a selectee (not to mention board as a normal passenger by bribing a DMV worker for a fake license, as some of the 9/11 hijackers did), the No Fly list is easily circumvented.

The government knows this, of course, and has pledged to overhaul the system by taking it out of the hands of the airlines. However, as Schneier points out, people will always lose their IDs, and there will always have to be a system in place to allow them to fly without one. Skeptical? Just imagine having your wallet stolen in Tulsa and being stuck there for weeks while waiting for a replacement driver's license. Imagine that happening to hundreds of people a day, and the subsequent angry calls to congressmen and congresswomen demanding a change in the law.

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