Schneier and Hawley

Directed from BoingBoing, I’ve been reading the installments of Bruce Schneier’s illuminating interview with TSA head Kip Hawley. I give Hawley some credit for agreeing to do the interview: not that many bureaucrats would agree to this kind of public discussion with a highly knowledgeable critic.

I’m unimpressed with Hawley’s answers to a lot of tough questions, though. Today’s installment is on the no-fly list, for example. Schneier (and many commenters at the site) zero in on one especially frustrating bit of evasion. Hawley concedes that there are names on the no-fly list that shouldn’t be there, and says TSA is trying hard to eliminate them. But, he says, the no-fly list also “works” and helps to prevent some people from flying. Hawley says that every week a small number of people show up at the airport and are not allowed to fly and that if we only knew who they were, we’d approve of the use of the list because these people must not be allowed to fly.

Schneier’s had a great response to this argument for a long time, and Hawley doesn’t recognize or respond to that critique. Hawley is not saying that the no-fly list is being used as a tool to identify and detailed suspected terrorists, leading to either their deportation or eventual conviction for crimes. What he’s claiming is that every week, a handful of people try to get on board a plane and are prevented from doing so because they are too dangerous to be allowed to fly under any circumstances. Dangerous how? Because they’ve got weapons or bombs on them right that second? Then find those weapons or explosives and convict them. If you know, really know, someone has a high probability of wanting to carry out a terrorist act on an airplane, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the evidence of preparations for that act when they show up at the airport. In what respect is someone “dangerous” to the safety of a flight if they’re not carrying anything that would allow them to attack that flight? Moreover, what does it mean that every single week there are a handful of people trying to board flights who are prevented from boarding (legitimately, according to Hawley) but who cannot be linked in any definitive material or direct fashion to terrorism and therefore convicted or detained? Seriously, what the hell is Hawley trying to say here? What is the use of that no-fly list? The use of taking off shoes? The use of making people carry fluids in little bags?

Like almost every practice he’s tried to defend so far in the interview, what it seems to me to boil down to is, “We’re trying to create enough of an impression that we’re doing something so that we can cover our asses when and if something actually does happen”. One commenter observed that some of what TSA does may also be about trying to create enough delays that a nervous would-be terrorist has more opportunities to display their nervousness to watchful experts, which strikes me as a plausible security practice and one that Hawley might have trouble bluntly admitting to. (E.g., we’re not doing all this stuff because it’s effective in and of itself, but because we’re trying to create a process that puts psychological pressure on passengers.)

I’m curious about whether Schneier will press Hawley on the actual conduct of TSA screeners towards the public. I’ve now encountered quite a few of them personally who are arbitrary or threatening towards most of the people passing through their supervision, and there’s a great many anecdotes out there of varying reliability about such behavior. That, too, strikes me as one of the purposes of the no-fly list and many other measures: to create a pervasive impression of authoritarian scrutiny. It’s the opposite of what an open society should be trying to accomplish with security measures. Hawley says there’s no danger of people being put on a no-fly list because they object to a TSA procedure while travelling or because of their political views–but without some sense that TSA procedures are subject to scrutiny by third parties who are not part of the security apparatus, there’s no reason to trust in his assurances.

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One Response to Schneier and Hawley

  1. emschwar says:

    I’m more and more impressed by Bruce Schneier than I am depressed by Sec. Hawley. For better or worse, you have to know that Hawley can’t be allowed to say anything substantive, because as soon as he does, he either gets ripped to shreds for the substance being stupid, or he gets ripped for “giving away our secrets”– no matter how stupid that is.

    If I were in Bruce’s shoes, I would feel obliged, I think, to absolutely nail him to the ground for every single statement, no matter how he tried to answer a question I didn’t ask. I’d sit on him until he admitted that either the no-fly list is lame, or it’s very useful, and why. Bruce, on the other hand, seems to have a very good handle on how far to push Hawley, and when he’s just not going to get any more useful information out of him, and it’s time to move on. That’s a very useful skill to have, and one I wish I did (though I’m getting better).

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