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Archive for December, 2009

Security threats and defense measures

Monday, December 28th, 2009

It’s been interesting to read and watch TV reports about the recent terrorist attempt on a KLM flight to Detroit.

The attempted attack was interesting in several ways:

  • The attacker was not some kid from the slums — he was, like the 9/11 terrorists — a kid from a wealthy background.
    • These attackers seem to fit the profile of radicalized kids from middle-class or wealthy families.
    • Given what these kids are sacrificing (everything) and what they can possibly hope to gain (nothing), they’re clearly idiots.
  • The security infrastructure failed completely:
    • The kid’s dad raised an alarm with authoritites that his son was a threat.
    • The kid’s name showed up in various watch lists.
    • The kid got a US entry visa, despite all this.
    • The kid got an explosive device past at least one airport security checkpoint, and possibly 2 or 3 of them.
  • The attack failed because passengers, since 9/11, are vigilant and there is no way one dumb kid can overpower a plane full of people who want to land safely.

The response has been predictable — more security theatre:

  • No moving about the cabin in the last hour of flights.
    • So what’s a terrorist to do? Perhaps blow something up sooner?
  • Nothing (laptop, blanket, etc.) on your lap during the last hour of flights.
    • So what’s a terrorist to do? Perhaps blow something up in the bathroom?
  • All passengers and baggage screened again at the gate.
    • Are they doing pat-downs? Strip searches? If not, then the new measures wouldn’t have stopped this particular dumb kid — he wore his explosives inside his pants, apparently.
  • Less personal baggage allowed (1 item rather than two).
    • Do they think this helps because terrorists need two bags to hold their bombs? Or perhaps it’s because they don’t have enough time to perform the above (pointless) search?

It seems to me that it’s not all that hard to blow up airplanes, if you’re willing to die for your cause. Airplanes aren’t falling out of the skies because there just aren’t enough people out there who are both dumb enough to want to blow themselves up and yet wealthy and cunning enough to pull it off. I think we’re safe, mostly, because that combination of wealthy, fanatic, idiot is pretty rare!

But lets assume that the threat really is very serious — lets imagine that there are thousands of these idiots just lining up to blow themselves up in the air, and kill hundreds of innocent bystanders in the process. What security measures would actually prevent this sort of thing?

I would argue that most of the measures that inconvenience travelers now are just theatre — they are designed to impress travelers that the government cares about our safety, but they don’t actually stop the bad guys.

I suspect that better bomb detectors, with swabs taken from all travelers and all baggage would be helpful.

I also propose that putting armed security staff on all flights, or at least flights with a minimum number of people on them (say 100 or 150 passengers) would make us safer, by having a trained professional take out the kid with a bomb, rather than a volunteer passenger.

More and better fire suppression systems on planes would be good too.

And maybe, just maybe, we should pay attention to who is boarding these planes? And not issue visas so quickly to people whose own families think they are a security threat?

I’m sure even more could be done — but it’s all expensive, and not anywhere near as theatrical as what we actually get for our tax dollars.