Challenges of Security

JRP Reflecting

Reflection – written June 4, 2002

We all want good security as we travel and after 9/11 most of us would agree that security is better than ever. I have said many times, as have others, that the inconveniences of security checks is a minor price to pay for the increase in security that we feel. At this stage I would have to admit that the “minor” inconveniences have at times seemed more than minor. I am still thankful for the increased security but am hopeful that more technology will be deployed to reduce the inconveniences.
The major issue in my opinion is Authentication. If we can reliably establish that we are who we say we are and that we have a track record of safe travels and a lack of a criminal record it will be easy for the security officals to allow us to pass through the “system” efficiently. However, we don’t yet have widespread digital id’s (more on that in a separate story to come) and therefore the inconveniences are very real. My wife and I just spent an enjoyable 24 hours in Quebec City, Canada (see separate story). It was uneventful until it came time to depart for home again.
We carried two bags each — a carry-on suitcase and a briefcase or pocketbook. During the security check through the scanners, the security personnel wanted to check our bags. No problem. Turn on your computer. Turn on your camera. No problem. Open your briefcase. May we inspect? Sure, no problem. Then they got to my “gadget” bag. What is this? A memory key for my computer. What is it? It stores data and can be plugged into any USB port of a personal computer. Blank stares. Turn it on. It doesn’t turn on unless you plug it into a USB port. We have to confiscate it unless you can turn it on. Hmmm. Ok, I plugged it into my ThinkPad USB port and the greeen light came on. They were happy. What is this, they said, as they fished further into my gadget bag? It is a camera. (The Spyz camera is tiny — 1 inch by two inches by 1/4 inch). Turn it on. I would be happy to but the battery is dead — the Spyz has incredibly poor battery life. It sucks a AAA battery dry in no time. A supervisor came over and explained that I had three choices. I could let them confiscate the $150 camera, I could go back to the terminal check-in area and check your carry-on back with American Airlines, or I could go buy a battery and turn this thing on for us so we know it is not something bad. Then the supervisor wanted to see my ThinkPad turned on. I explained that the other person had already done that — twice. She insisted, so of course, I turned it on again. At this point I was beginning to fume a bit. I wanted to be understanding but it was getting to me. They wanted to see the tiny camera “on”. I am thinking to myself, but didn’t dare say it, that if they saw the tiny LCD panel show a number on it would that mean it is ok? Maybe that meant time to detonation! Doesn’t matter. Until we get reliable technology deployed — especially digital ID’s — security is going to remain a bureaucratic process.
Ok, I went to the gift shop to get a AAA battery. As I approached the store, the attendant had just locked the door to go to lunch. I asked him to please sell me a battery and thankfully he was kind enough to do so. I raced back to the security station with my new battery, put it in the Spyz, and showed them the digits on the LCD panel. They were happy, but seeing my frustration, they decided to check more things in my bag. Turn this on, turn that on, etc. I was surprised they didn’t ask me to take off my shoes — as I have had to do so many times in the last six months.
They then took my wife’s nail file — it would barely cut hot butter — and off we went to the gate. Am I thankful for the increased level of security at our airports? Yes, very much so. Are the security people generally friendly or at least courteous and civil? Yes, they are. So what is the problem? The problem is not that road warriors like me are inconvenienced and at times frustrated. The problem is that the process doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue. An electronic item that displays digits on an LCD doesn’t mean that it is not a weapon. There is a huge inconsistency from airport to airport as to what is checked or not checked. Most important of all, there are no digital ID’s that allow the security teams to know whether or not we are who we say we are. Authentication remains as the central ingredient to making things more secure.
In total, the time spent in security clearance procedures represented a non-trivial portion of our short trip. Searches in White Plains, then in Boston, then in Boston again as we left the Admiral’s Club to return to a connecting flight to Quebec, then in Quebec, and then two more times in Boston enroute to Newark for our car ride back to New Enland. We really need more technology deployment to have a safe and sane world.

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