The TSA's Security Secret: There Is No Security Secret

In Sunday's New York Times, Matt Richtel explores the arbitrary intricacies of the Transportation Security Administration's rules concerning electronic devices carried by air travelers:

A spokesman said the agency has its reasons for still requiring that traditional laptops [but not, say, tablet computers, e-readers, or smartphones] go through X-ray machines in a separate bin. But he declined to share them, saying the agency didn’t want to betray any secrets.

As I did more reporting, the logic behind the rule grew as elusive as a free power outlet in the boarding area.

Richtel notes that there does not seem to be any security-relevant characteristic, including size and interior capacity, that consistently distinguishes laptops, which have to be removed, from electronic equipment that you're allowed to keep in your bag. The TSA's blog at one point suggested that laptops with relatively small screens (11 inches or less) can stay put, but Richtel was unable to get an official confirmation of that rule. He reports that a security agent at the San Francisco International Airport, which hires a private contractor to to do its passenger screening, told him iPads need not come out while warning that "other airports might be different."

As usual, the most plausible explanation for the TSA's policy comes from people outside the TSA. "Is it thicker than an inch, wider than a piece of paper, bluer than the sky?" says security expert Bruce Schneier. "Who cares? It's all nonsense." Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst, tells Richtel, "It's a difference without a distinction, at least from a security standpoint." An unnamed security expert says (in Richtel's paraphrase) "the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them." He calls it "security theater" (a term coined by Schneier).

I would add a corollary to the rule that TSA policies are mainly about appearances: As with other bureaucracies, the stupidity of the policies is compounded by the ignorance of the agency's employees, who often do not know what the policies are.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's so the screeners can laugh at your Celeron.

  • ||

    There have always back Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.

  • Rich||

    Somewhat related: Why doesn't TSA confiscate earphones? Those things can be used as garrotes.

  • ||

    Laptops often have rigid PC boards, which are a glass-fiber composite with epoxy. It can be honed down to a sharp edge and used as an assault knife.

    Hey, best I could do.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    So can credit cards. I'd guess that DVDs could be, but I've never tried.

  • fried wylie||

    having tried to machine DVD bits into mirrors, I'd say they're a bit too brittle.

  • ||

    "Is it thicker than an inch, wider than a piece of paper, bluer than the sky?"

    But enough about my penis...

  • fried wylie||

    blue? circulation, man, circulation.

  • freeAgent||

    I once had a few newspapers in the laptop compartment of my backpack (one of the EZ-Scan types that doesn't require me to actually remove it from the bag). The TSA agents actually pulled my bag out of the x-ray machine, had me remove the magazines, and ran them both through separately.

    Idiocy.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    It's too bad--I and a few others have tried to convert Schneier to libertarianism, but he's skeptical, although he relies heavily on some stuff on this blog and on CATO's work. But his most recent book is probably a challenge to some basic components of libertarian thought. Or at least he thinks it is.

  • ant1sthenes||

    If by some fluke I became president, I'd make him head of DHS regardless.

  • wingnutx||

    Today I flew carrying two laptops, and ran them through the x-ray in the same bin.

    The TSA dude had to re-scan them in separate bins.

  • FredT||

    It is "Bruce Schneier" not "Bruce Scheier".

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