Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Israeli model for the US?

I've seen a number of posts such as this one since the failed Christmas bombing attempt about whether or not it's time for the TSA to adopt more Israeli-style security methodologies.

I completely agree that the TSA seems to be a bureaucrat's idea of security rather than an actual security mechanism. While I'm sure that it actually does prevent the casual/amateur/copycat/wannabe terrorist (and that's a good thing), I think that the harm it does in terms of false positives (i.e., people getting busted not because they actually are a security threat but because they break security-related rules, resulting in a security scare) and overall expense and hassle far outweighs the benefit. And as the Christmas attempt shows, any halfway trained professional can get through TSA-style security.

The Christmas attempt also shows that fellow passengers are among the best security mechanisms available. They stopped Richard Reid, they stopped this guy.

In other words, we are spending billions of dollars and untold delays and hassles for the appearance of security, without actually providing significantly improved security. And I would argue that appearance of security is worse than actual security, because it diverts attention and resources from finding true threats.

Which goes to prove the next point, which is that the folks advocating Israeli-style security for the US are on the ball when it comes to the fact that it is not about x-rays and removing shoes, it's about behavior. While I'm not wild about the intrusiveness of this approach, it's certainly a lot more effective and a lot more efficient.

My main concerns with Israeli-style security are twofold: scalability - we have dramatically greater numbers of air passengers, and the necessary intrusiveness which violates both our explicit constitutional protections and implicit expectations with respect to the degree to which we have to prove to our government that we have the right to travel before we are allowed to do so.

Nevertheless, I think we could learn a lot from Israel in this space and adjust our procedures to focus more on what works rather than on what "looks" secure. I suspect that we can both improve our security and lesson the burden, if only we were to take a data-driven approach to the problem.

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