Why TSA Airport Security is Actually Harmful, and Not Merely Ineffective

Bruce Schneier on why current airport security is actually harmful, and not just mere ineffective inconvenience:

Kip Hawley doesn’t argue with the specifics of my criticisms, but instead provides anecdotes and asks us to trust that airport security—and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in particular—knows what it’s doing.

He wants us to trust that a 400-ml bottle of liquid is dangerous, but transferring it to four 100-ml bottles magically makes it safe. He wants us to trust that the butter knives given to first-class passengers are nevertheless too dangerous to be taken through a security checkpoint. He wants us to trust the no-fly list: 21,000 people so dangerous they’re not allowed to fly, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested. He wants us to trust that the deployment of expensive full-body scanners has nothing to do with the fact that the former secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, lobbies for one of the companies that makes them. He wants us to trust that there’s a reason to confiscate a cupcake (Las Vegas), a 3-inch plastic toy gun (London Gatwick), a purse with an embroidered gun on it (Norfolk, VA), a T-shirt with a picture of a gun on it (London Heathrow) and a plastic lightsaber that’s really a flashlight with a long cone on top (Dallas/Fort Worth).

…The humiliation, the dehumanisation and the privacy violations are also harms. [T]he mental harm suffered by both abuse survivors and children: the things screeners tell them as they touch their bodies are uncomfortably similar to what child molesters say.

In 2004, the average extra waiting time due to TSA procedures was 19.5 minutes per person. That’s a total economic loss—in –America—of $10 billion per year, more than the TSA’s entire budget. The increased automobile deaths due to people deciding to drive instead of fly is 500 per year. Both of these numbers are for America only, and by themselves demonstrate that post-9/11 airport security has done more harm than good.

The current TSA measures create an even greater harm: loss of liberty. Airports are effectively rights-free zones. Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.) And if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence.

…Increased fear is the final harm, and its effects are both emotional and physical. By sowing mistrust, by stripping us of our privacy—and in many cases our dignity—by taking away our rights, by subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational rules, and by constantly reminding us that this is the only thing between us and death by the hands of terrorists, the TSA and its ilk are sowing fear. And by doing so, they are playing directly into the terrorists’ hands.

…Return airport security checkpoints to pre-9/11 levels. Get rid of everything that isn’t needed to protect against random amateur terrorists and won’t work against professional al-Qaeda plots.

…Recognise that 100% safety is impossible, and also that terrorism is not an “existential threat” to our way of life. Respond to terrorism not with fear but with indomitability. Refuse to be terrorized.

Read the whole thing.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Humiliated? Dehumanized? Privacy violated? If I have to experience all of these feelings every week when I fly for the rest of my life to keep one person from getting blown up, then its totally worth it.

  2. @bo I think the point is two-fold,

    (1) changing the relationship between individuals and the state is NOT worth it to save one life, but

    (2) government policies aren’t actually saving lives, they are counterproductive, they are COSTING lives.

  3. @bo, that’s a false trade though. The point many security experts have made over the years is that your humiliation is tied in no way at all to the salvation of a single life. And as is mentioned in the quoted post, the avoidance of humiliation by driving instead of flying has resulted in many more deaths due to car wrecks than would have occurred due to hijacking/bombing/etc. So the humiliation/inconvenience aspect of it is actually COSTING US LIVES rather than saving them.

  4. Amen. At least someone gets it. Precisely why I refuse to fly until the current TSA is abolished and everyone in its management permanently banned from any government job – as it is now it is a unconstitutional, unaccountable, criminal, thuggish organization. Every American who values their liberties should stop flying; once enough do that to threaten the airlines business, then maybe the politicians will have enough guts to change the system.

    And “bo”, your attitude is completely sickening.

  5. @Steve
    I hear your point, but if you refuse to fly, what do you get out of this blog???

  6. There are only two things the TSA should focus on preventing: 1. Commandeering of an aircraft. 2. Causing the catastrophic destruction of an aircraft. All other risks we willingly take on all the time as part of our day to day lives. Yeah somebody could stab you at the mall, in the subway, in the supermarket’s parking lot, at the office or heck, even in your own home. Why the mission to create a super sterile flying experience? We wouldn’t tolerate such restrictions in any other aspect of our lives. Normally, the things you can do with pointy objects are called common crime, not terrorism. But as the TSA would say, these are not normal times (when are they ever when TSA types have so much power?)

  7. The customs/ immigrations/TSA agents work in the same department when 9/11 took place. To add salt to injury, the INS (which became defunct &gave birth to TSA & DHS right after 9/11)sent citizenship certificates to 2 of 19 dead hijackers months after 9/11 to Arizona addresses to congratulate them on being new US citizens.These brain dead top brass were clueless about the enemies they were tasked to fight against & provide us national security. The dead terrorists already achieved their ultimate goals: to become matyrs & inflict lasting damages to their greatest satan, psychologically & economically. They went to heaven where Allah & 72 virgin brides awaited each of them (1368 brides in total).Civilains lost their lives. Businesses lost their assets & money. Did anyone in power lose his/her job? The president? VP? Secretary? National Security advisor? Department head? These agents must balance their two priority responsibilities: gatekeeper of national security and promoter of US industries such as tourism & hospitality. They must not be hired & be fired if they lack lengthy neutral/positive previous exposure/ experience in different cultures, religions and with different ethnic groups. Just like intelligent agents on the field must possess multi-linguistic skill.Profiling is a reality, but NOT act out of it under pretext,like the Israelis do so get over it. They are quite hostile to many friendly visitors & citizens at airports and we receive reciprocal treatment when we visit foreign countries. You cannot challenge them at airport because they have authority to detain or arrest you for obstruction of or resistance to some sort.What have we become of as the nation? It is saddened to see that we cannot find competent & accountable people to move the country forward–people to assume powerful positions in judicial & executive & legislative branches.The country is deeply polarized and social class divided, due to extreme ideological & religious preferences.

  8. @Global Traveler: Ramble much? And, English speakers prefer to add insult to injury, not salt.

  9. Actually, I beg to differ on one the points you quoted Gary, namely, “You cannot make jokes.” I remember being shocked at how, well, friendly and relaxed the TSA agents at Raleigh-Durham and Myrtle Beach were, even successfully getting a few jokes in with the RDU agents, and yes, they did smile/laugh.

    Granted anything is better than JFK and LGA (my home airports), I sometimes wonder if the surface-level disdain those particular agents have has to do with the sheer number of people they deal with everyday.

  10. Right on! What the government does not credit or give credence to, is the active involvement of air passengers in any potentially dangerous situations. Evidence of this abounds —-

  11. These agencies operate on fear mongering to justify their existence and future funding. They have clearly lost sight of the actual mission and those whom they were formed to serve. It servant has now become the master dictating policy even to Congress who ostensibly controls but consistently fails to exercise that control.

    The only way to fix the problem is to dismantle the entire DHS complex and replace TSA outright.

  12. @nycman

    Agree conceptually, but with two important changes to your reasoning:

    -Don’t task the TSA with anything. Return airport screening responsibility to the private sector as it was pre-9/11, where those carrying out the screening have economic incentives to both keep you safe and ensure you don’t spend an hour waiting in a security line. The TSA has financial incentives for neither.

    -Of course you fortify cockpit doors so that planes can’t become missiles again, but attempting to prevent “catastrophic destruction” of a/c sounds to me like screening for bombs, which sounds a lot like full body scanners. We need to accept the reality that regardless of any security measures, every once and a while a determined suicide bomber is going to be able to blow up a plane. Flying should be a calculated risk that reflects this (minute) chance, in the same way that choosing to drive reflects the minute chance a drunk driver may cross the center line and involve you in a fatal accident.

  13. This is a nice drum to beat, but even all the “facts” are not accurate.

    Does it really take 19.5 minutes extra per person for screening? I have rarely seen a security line that long. My average, even with “opting out” is almost always way less than that. I fly from pretty major airports most of the time.

    This is a great blog post for a travel security/TSA bashing forum. Having said that, I am not in love with the TSA, but on the other hand no one has proven that the reason there have been no terrorist incidents on flights within or from the USA is not because of security screening.

  14. Funny how this is such a obsession of conservatives in the USA when they are the leading proponents of putting pro Law and Order Justices on the Supreme Court since the Warren Era! I guess its OK if the rights of darked skinned people are violated “when driving while black” but a not OK to treat whites the same at an airport. This is more about the loss of white privilege than anything else. You were warned by Liberals as far back as Nixon but you listened to Nixon, W implemented it so just bend over and enjoy it. Next on the agends, I say lets expand the death penalty to Wall Street crimes.

  15. Let me check the math:

    Number of planes taken over by terrorist acts since TSA established:


    We now return to our regular programming.

  16. Let me check some math:

    Number of people killed during 9/11 attacks: ~3000

    Number killed in auto accidents since 9/11 because of intrusive TSA: 500/year for 10+ years….

    WAY more than 3000!

  17. totally bogus and disagree.. People drive not fly due to the cost of fuel going up so tickets went up and people can”t afford it. Put blame where it belongs.

  18. Tell the administration to withhold funding from TSA until they respect the Constitution and the public:


    1. Remove and destroy all imaging machines that potentially can “see” under our clothing.
    2. Cease and desist all invasive patdowns that involve touching genitalia unless there is probable cause to believe that the individual has committed a crime.
    3. Cease immediately harassment of people who assert their constitutional rights during airport screening.


  19. While I agree there can be improvements to the TSA, I agree with Sam — “Number of planes taken over by terrorist acts since TSA established:


    The point about more people being killed driving is bogus — it’s an irrelevant fact. For example, were it relevant we could argue that the government should subsidize airline tickets in order to encourage less driving and save more lives.

    Pointing out some goofy missteps (i.e., a T-shirt with a gun on it, etc.) really proves nothing. With the many TSA checkpoints, there are bound to be some mistakes and some bad employees. I fly quite a bit and have found that the wait times have gotten better and better, TSA agents have much improved in attitude and actions, and overall the tradeoff is worth it.

  20. @BBRAB – number of terrorists caught by the tsa = 0.

    The # of people killed driving is especially meaningful because it is an alternative to flying, raise the cost and time of flying and people substitute driving on short routes. That’s more dangerous and more people are harmed as a result.

  21. @Gary – Hopefully the terrorists are staying away, and part of the reason is deeper scrutiny when attempting to fly.

    Regarding driving — of course there are dangers related to driving. However, people choose to drive for many various reasons. I don’t believe TSA is a primary reason. In addition, when driving we are a bit more in control of our own lives. Granted, someone else can run into us, and that it tougher to control. However, we are definitely not in control at all if a bomb is on our flight at 35,000 feet. I definitely disagree with the thought made by one commenter, “We need to accept the reality that regardless of any security measures, every once and a while a determined suicide bomber is going to be able to blow up a plane.”

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