Monday, February 28, 2011

TSA Mea Culpa

Global Review has been tough on the TSA. We were suspicious of the 'need' for Backscatter machines, skeptical of the need to bureaucratize airport security, and indignant about the dictatorial nature of airport security.

Assuming it is telling the truth, however, the TSA has answered our concerns. In a sweeping, unanticipated report released today, the TSA showed that it is in fact data-driven, sophisticated in cost-benefit analysis, and surprisingly effective. NYTimes reports:
Previously classified information released in the report includes the precise details on the capture of three terrorists. Arab Israeli citizens, they avoided detection through normal espionage and surveillance by procuring tourist visas and booking unsuspicious round-trip itineraries. The three had different destinations in the U.S., and arrived and departed separately. However, all three shared a return flight from New York to Tel Aviv. In addition, each one carried just two of the three components needed to assemble the homemade bomb which they planned to detonate. This ingenious arrangement meant that one could be detected and detained - or miss his connecting flight - without spoiling the plot. Additionally, if any of them were caught, he could plausibly argue that he did not, in fact, have the makings of a bomb, and might be allowed to walk away.

The first to attempt boarding, in Atlanta, was caught, and kept from using a cell phone to warn his co-conspirators. A state of high alert went out to other TSA personnel around the country. The increased level of scrutiny led to delays and missed flights, making December 10th, 2010, a heretofore inexplicably bad day for air travelers. The second, in Detroit, was caught two hours later, and the third fled upon seeing the level of security in Boston's Logan Airport. He was arrested a week later.
That's a pretty impressive episode (hence my at-length quote). But it's an anecdote, and the real impressive part of the TSA's report comes in the meat of the report. Over the last three months of 2010, the TSA's internal testing system ran systemic attempts to breach security at most TSA airports and all non-TSA airports. The results, in summary, show the TSA to be effective and the Backscatter a godsend:
  • TSA airports intercepted 62% of attempts.
  • Non-TSA airports intercepted 48% of attempts.
  • TSA airports with Backscatter intercepted 64% of attempts.
    • Backscatter machines intercepted 77% of attempts.
    • Patdowns intercepted 92% of attempts.
    • Screenings through metal detectors intercepted 61% of attempts.
  • TSA airports without Backscatter intercepted 63% of attempts.
In the report, the results are further broken down by types of contraband. Drugs, for obvious reasons, were almost always undetected, while guns and explosives were almost always detected.

The report further reports the number of complaints (and even lawsuits!) faced by the TSA before and after the introduction of Backscatter screenings as a measure of cost to flyers, as well as length of security delay in each attempted boarding. These results are unexciting, but quietly conclude that TSA methods are no more onerous on travelers than non-TSA, and the Backscatter only slows the queue when people opt out.

The report lists the internal data (names redacted) of agents disciplined for sharing images created by the Backscatter, or reprimanded by supervisors for inappropriate comments to customers.

Global Review is also data-driven, and must firmly change its position to support for the TSA and the Backscatter (pending longer-term health risk investigations). Paradoxically, it's not the particular figures that concern us as much as the overall picture of a crisply efficient, citizen-oriented bureaucracy (I never thought I'd get to use that phrase!). If the TSA is policing itself, choosing best practices based on science and not lucre, and making its decisions transparent, then it has the consent of this governed.

Of course, this is all a fiction, contrived by yours truly for expositional purposes. It also serves as a road map for what sort of action the TSA would have to take in order to win the trust of us skeptics. Is it too much to ask that government account for its decisions and employ basic scientific methods of evaluation?


Elliot said...

Nice. I was almost ready to take back all of my criticisms too. That's exactly the report we need to see.

Carol L. Douglas said...

Good thing I'm a natural-born cynic.

Matthew said...

You had me going w/r/t your TSA report. I'm not sure even a report like that would convince me that our current level of airport security is our best use of those national resources.