Is it safe to fly?
The recent security breach that allowed a bomb-wearing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab onto Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit is making a lot of people wonder. And although the airlines, the Transport Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security were quick to do something, Fred H. Cate thinks we all might have been better off had they waited and done something right.
Cate, a distinguished professor and C. Ben Dutton Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomfield, and director of the Indiana University Center for Applied Cyberspace Research, says that the recent changes in airport security are "exactly the wrong things to be doing."
In a phone interview with Miller-McCune.com on New Year's Eve, Cate dished on the Christmas attack, America's biggest security threat and terrorists' affinity for airplanes. He also addressed how we can make airplanes safer without spending millions or adding hours to your pre-board security check.
What Went Wrong?
"Anybody who has ever stood in an airport security line watching an 80-year-old woman be patted down because she was selected for a random search has seen the imperfections of our current system," Cate asserted.
Abdulmutallab's alleged attempt to take down a plane reveals what happens when the system fails. The Department of Homeland Security currently uses the Automated Targeting System for planes coming to and from the U.S. The system provides information on all passengers, such as whether their tickets are one-way or round-trip and how they were paid for.
Yet, as Cate pointed out, "That clearly didn't work in this case because the suspect should have triggered a lot of these. He was on a watch list, he bought a one-way ticket, and he paid cash."
Security screening also failed to pick up the explosives on Abdulmutallab's body. Current screening systems are designed to detect metals (guns and knives) and liquids (explosives), neither of which is believed to have been present on Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day. Full-body screenings, meanwhile, have privacy advocates deeply concerned.
Cate suggested that new strategies need to consider new risks. "One thing that's really a useful exercise is to say, ‘What are we guarding against?'"
For example, "If we're talking about using planes as weapons [as was done on 9/11], locking the cockpit door has solved the problem of people taking over planes, so we can say that measure has been successful.
"But if we're talking about people taking down planes, there are a lot of risks that we need to consider. Shoulder missiles, for example, could bring down a plane remarkably effectively."
On the restrictions that went into effect immediately after Abdulmutallab's alleged attack attempt, Cate was vehement: "They're exactly the wrong things to be doing. Out of x number of passengers traveling, the likelihood that one of them is going to be a terrorist is virtually zero. [The new restrictions] also suggest that terrorists are just stupid. If they can't get up to go to the bathroom for the last hour of the flight, why wouldn't they blow a plane up 75 minutes before the end of a flight? If we're serious about this approach, we're going to say no taking on bags and no getting up to use the bathroom at all."
Cate suggested that there is pressure on the administration to react immediately to an attempted terrorist attack, but that it is important for government officials to fully understand what happened before responding. Taking this approach would preserve resources for more effective security measures.
He cited a nobody-is-in-control feeling as a worrisome byproduct of recent events, both in the United States and other Western countries. Although he believes that "the TSA is a remarkably professional agency" and understands the difficult challenge agency officials face, he felt the response to the incident did little for public confidence.
"It happened Friday, and TSA threw up its hands and sort of said the airline could do whatever it wanted," Cate says, "On Saturday, we had the airlines making these crazy restrictions, like not letting people listen to their iPods or read their books. On Sunday, we had Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitanosaying that the system had worked. Security experts were saying that that was crazy, and she came back the next day and said that obviously the system didn't work. Then you had Obama coming out and saying that obviously the system didn't work."
Cate thinks that in this situation, honesty is the best policy. "I'm one of the few people who think a political leader who would come out and say that we're going to make traveling by air as secure as possible in a way that we can afford without creating a major inconvenience would be well received."
Cate stressed the importance of repairing the current system before adopting a new one. Keeping watch lists up-to-date and accessible is an important first step toward preventing terrorists from boarding international flights.
He also suggests creating a passenger information database. "We should get a good data mine in advance so that we know as much as we can about passengers. ... We're wasting efforts on the wrong people, and I think a lot of people have a sort of disregard for airport security as a result."
He points to the Registered Traveler Program, a two-year pilot conducted by TSA in 19 airports from July 2006 to July 2008. The private-sector program grants time-saving benefits to registered frequent flyers who are not seen as security threats. (It is still available to those who enrolled prior to its conclusion, but is not accepting new participants.)
Cate says the program was too expensive for broad implementation, but remarkably successful.
He recommends targeting increased security at suspicious passengers. "One of the big mistakes we've made in the United States is that we've conducted security sort of randomly. No one in their right mind would conduct security randomly. We should know enough about every passenger so that we can focus our security efforts on people that we don't know enough about or who we do know pose risks.
"We all know about the FBI agents who can carry their guns on board but not their nail clippers. Add a little common sense into it. If we trust you to carry on a weapon, why shouldn't we trust you to bring on a Diet Coke?" The federal government has been advised by its own people to start thinking about risk that way, but so far it hasn't shown up at the airport.
The latest travel restrictions went into effect Jan. 4 and subject anyone flying into the United States who holds a passport from or has traveled through any of 14 terrorist-prone countries to enhanced screening. They also mandate random and threat-based screening on international flights.
The 14 countries include four that the State Department deems "state sponsors of terrorism" — Iran, Syria, Cuba and Sudan — as well as 10 "countries of interest" that are known for terrorist activity and instability.
Can any airport security system protect us completely?
"I wish there were. I don't think there is any such thing as having a perfect system. One of the things that is frustrating is that no political leader wants to say that. No one wants to say that we could spend our last dollar, and we still wouldn't be completely protected."
He added, "We accept however many highway deaths every year and a number of medical deaths, but there's something about terrorism really gets our back up, even though it accounts for such a small number of deaths in the United States each year."
Numerous attempted and successful foreign terrorist attacks have focused on airplanes. Cate doesn't know that there is a definitive reason why, but acknowledges media attention granted to the attacks as a possible reason and adds that international flights tie the U.S. to the rest of the world.
"Airplanes lead the list of sort of magical national symbols. In a way, it's actually lucky for us. If terrorists focused on shopping malls or city buses, we wouldn't know what to do. It is a good thing for our way of life that terrorists are so focused on such limited targets."
But the target he worries most about doesn't involve targeting human beings at all. "Perhaps it's because it's my line of research, but I worry about cyber threats much more than physical threats. ... If I had to think about a way to sort of attack American life, messing up the stock market or erasing electronic deposits would be disastrous. I think that cyber attacks pose the greatest risk, and the area that we're spending the least amount of time protecting is cyberspace."
He urges Americans and policymakers to consider the goals of terrorists when evaluating the U.S. response to an attack.
"Fear, mistrust, chaos. ... They're trying to disrupt our normal way of life, and if you look at some of the things we do in response to terrorist threats, they're succeeding even though the acts themselves aren't successful. Say airport security measures in the last few years have added 20 minutes per person for the 26 million people who fly each year. If you were to assign an opportunity cost to that time, it's been tens of millions of dollars in wasted resources. Think about if we had invested that money in cancer research, for example.
"Even though most terrorist acts aren't successful and don't cause real injury, our response can easily turn them into real injury."
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