Saturday, November 20, 2010

TSA Porn

During WWII one of the many vexing problems facing the Allies was countering the devastating effects of German U-boat attacks on merchant and war ships. To effectively minimize the toll German U-boats were exacting on Allied shipping, they needed to be located and destroyed before they could execute their attacks. But the U-boats could be anywhere; crisscrossing the entire Atlantic in search of them was out of the question. Considering the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, how could the Allies hope to find what were essentially needles in a haystack?

Out of this dilemma came the science of Operations Research; an interdisciplinary mathematical model which would predict the “most likely probability of near optimal solutions to decision-making problems”. Using science, Allied anti-sub warfare effectively reduced the U-boat threat without having to resort to systematically searching every square mile of the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently there has been a rising public uproar over the latest, and more invasive, passenger screening processes; the full body scanners and hand pat-downs of passengers who do not want to be subjected to the “revealing” scans. Pilots are complaining as well citing the logical conundrum that they are already in command of the aircraft; the need for a bomb or gun is completely irrelevant should a pilot decide to use an aircraft as a destructive instrument.

Those objecting to the new screening techniques are reminded that passengers enjoy no constitutional right to fly on commercial aircraft. But in this controversy one major question is being overlooked: are these increased security measures truly increasing air travel security? Most people might argue that checking every single passenger for risk is the most thorough screening possible; but is this the most effective procedure to ensure airline security, and at what cost? Long lines, aggravated passengers and wasted dollars are clearly the result of the current methodology.

One solution might be to apply the science of Operations Research to the problem – using probability analysis to target the most likely sources of security risks. Take for example my son who travels almost weekly for his job. He is screened on every trip, yet no history of his travel and an assessment of his risk to security, are recorded. There are no factors in his life, work, relationships or personal life that would indicate he presents a potential risk presents to other passengers. Yet a system is in place which provides potential creditors with a detailed assessment of his risk as a borrower; his credit record follows him everywhere. Were a similar “travel credit record” to be established for people such as Jesse, he and others could potentially bypass the work intensive security screening procedure. This is but one example of employing Operations Research to improve the quality of airport security and reduce the costs and aggravation of the screening process.

Sheldon Howard Jacobson, Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has proposed applying Operations Research to the problem of airport security. Dr. Jacobson has produced a 6-minute video, “Aviation Security: Assessing the Risk”, which clearly explains his proposal to improve airport security.

Until an integrated approach is brought to transportation security, passengers will be increasingly subjected to unnecessary and intrusive distress, increased costs associated with air travel and marginal effectiveness toward greater airline security.

However, a recent under-cover Japanese airport security video has surfaced – as you can clearly see, the Japanese are taking airport security screening most aggressively. Take a look:

30 comments:

Gorilla Bananas said...

I've always thought that the late Benny Hill should have taken his show to Japan. Interesting that Japanese men seem to prefer bottoms to breasts. I guess that's what happens when you eat a lot of seafood.

MartyrMom said...

Going for a visit in a prison warrants less of a pat down. The puzzling part of security in my opinion is the shoes. If I were going to take anything on a plane I'd put it on the soles of my feet or inside my socks. They don't check there. Makes no sense to just x-ray the shoes.

PeterDeMan said...

Very interesting post, Robert. As you know our daughter is a Lt. Colonel stationed at the Pentagon. She's done 4-5 tours of Afghanistan and Iraq,and has been awarded two bronze stars. Her specialty? Operations Research (ORSA), in which she has a master's degree, working on her PhD. My side of the family has always been heavily into mathematics but when she tries to explain "metrics" to me I zone out.Perhaps the army would loan her out to TSA.

My lady told me the other day about a piece she watched about El Al in Israel. They have the most effective security in the world. They've never had a single bad incident. Why? First, they interview every single passenger but key off anyone with any degree of suspicion, usually those of middle eastern origins. In other words, they profile big time. It's absolutely ludicrous that we don't here.Yesterday there was a TV interview of an 83 year old woman, in a wheelchair, who couldn't go thru the scanners. She expressed the horrors of how intimately she was "felt up" by a screener.

One huge difference between us and Israel is they are such a tiny country with only one major airport. They can afford to have highly trained people for security. Our country is huge, has many airports, hires screeners at economy wages and in general they are poorly trained. Also, procedures vary wildly by airport.

We could do it better but we won't. Nobody takes their shoes off in Israel.

The Mother said...

What, wait! You want the TSA to use MATH to solve the security problem???

These guys don't even have to go to college.

Besides, everyone knows that math is purely theoretical and has no real value in confronting such daunting problems as security, poverty, global warming, overpopulation, economic disasters---oh, wait.

I want to see a microeconomic game theorist in the White House. Who's with me?

DJan said...

It seems we are always closing the barn door after the horse is out. Shoes off after the Shoe Bomber, I never thought we would STILL be taking them off so many years later. Sometimes I wonder about those who make decisions in this country.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

I am with DJan. Once someone figures out a way around the security, then the security tries to prevent a recurrence. Ridiculous. Profiling works only if the bad guys actually meet the profule model. Did Timothy McVeigh meet that model before he bombed that Oklahoma City building? When middle class, middle age women are nonprofile suspects, then the terrorists will find persons who meet that criteria to pass through the security.
I hate the idea of the current security methods. I think they are crazy as well. With all of the technology in this world, I can't believe it is not possible to secure our transportation system in a more effecient and less invasive manner.
Focus on finding the best mathematical/scientific system or a program which will find the most random way to ensure safety without a profling model.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas Benny would have done great in Japan. His humor, like this one from Japan, require no understanding of the language to understand the hilarity.

MartyrMom I've been pulled out of line for further screening as I apparently I meet their "profile" which is I am not wearing a business suit. They wand the bottoms of my socked feet. Strange.

Peter That's cool about your daughter. During my tenure in the banking system I spent three of my 12 years there in Operations Research. I loved it, it was a natural fit for me. I used to love it when I would propose a system and someone would reject it saying "we've always done it this way." When I heard that phrase I knew my proposal was on the right track.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom I want to just see someone with balls in the White House!! Who's with me?

DJan The university video speaks of that very clearly, we are good to responding to what has already happened, not so go on anticipating the next strike or tactic.

BackRow Even our profiling is lame; you can tell that the agents who pull people out do so for clearly unconsciously biased reasons. As I mentioned above, I speculate that I have been pulled out because I have a beard; but I never see them pull the guy aside in a suit and tie. Hmmm, I suspect that the next terrorists will be a dapper businessman wearing a suit.

Madame DeFarge said...

I loathe idea of those scanners, and am not convinced that the numpties working at most security checking would recognise anything if it bit them on the nose (I'm being polite here).

Jerry said...

The government seems to be adept at one thing, take a straight-forward proposition and skew it all out of proportion. For myself, I don't mind being 'scanned' -- I'm old enough to not even care, even though I consider it an absurd waste of time and money.

Entre Nous said...

The only thing that concerns me is... are they going to be able to tell exactly how MUCH padding is on my padded bra?????? :}

Robert the Skeptic said...

Madame Indeed, some random "tests" of screening processes have show any number of contraband items being allowed through. Think about it, if as a TSA agent you are doing a mundane job for weeks, months, years never detecting a genuine threat, what are the odds that your complacency would reach a point where you would completely miss catching a genuine threat?

Jerry One consultant termed the current screening process as "security theater", giving the illusion that substantial protection is being afforded. I personally have resigned to myself that I will trade of a lot of hassle just to reach a destination in a few hours. By the way, the business of private corporate (executive) jets is rapidly increasing. Moneyed people avoid all this bother.

Entre Nous Probably not, but the agents will likely jostle each other for the opportunity to "screen" you to find out.

Orhan Kahn said...

I was recently told about the whole credit record thing that follows you Americans around the country. It blew my mind! I think thats just insane and absolutely unfair. We don't have anything like that here unless you're looking to hire or loan something. To think that credit record has anything to do with me flying around my country is just insulting. I simply wouldn't travel.

GutsyWriter said...

What a laugh I had with this video. I don't have a solution, however, when I travel, it really doesn't bother me to be scanned or x-rayed, as long as it doesn't cause cancer in the long run. I agree though, at LAX, it bothers me when TSA staff barely speak English themselves, and many look fed up with their job making you wonder if they're paying attention to wht they're doing.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan Big uproar her for using credit scores to calculate car insurance premiums for drivers. That aside, I am not proposing using credit records but creating a "traveler profile record" for individuals, similar to a credit record, but for travel risk instead. We have a "no fly list" but that has been shown to be almost completely useless. My father-in-law showed up on a No Fly list; his name is "John Smith"... like there is only one John Smith in the world??

Gutsy My point exactly, people are conducting this screening process who may be of marginal (how do I put this diplomatically) intellect. They are going through "motions" of security checking, unlike the Israeli level of profile screening. Any "smart" terrorist can likely bypass these screeners as testing of them has already demonstrated.

Artist and Geek said...

Robert-a number of blogs have recently been posting a link to an article called:
"The Israelification of airports, high security, little bother."
Thought it was interesting if you haven't already come across it.

They claim that they're not profiling, instead have highly trained (ex-military) asking everyone questions and observing behavior.
It seems to work.

Rain said...

I'd prefer the 'naked scanner' to the pat down given how they seem to be doing it including for one woman under the underwear. That just seems invasive beyond belief and if someone wanted to hide something they could put it inside the body; so how far will these people take this whole thing? I think Americans need to say this was too far.

Worse, they are lying to us. They said it doesn't save images and then the images showed up elsewhere. They say they don't do it on children under 12 and I saw a video of a boy in an airport with the screeners where they took off his shirt and patted him down. He was clearly around 7 or 8 at the very oldest. They say the radiation is safe. Why should we believe them on this where they lie about the rest? If someone has to fly frequently, I'd guess that radiation is not going to prove to be safe.

I'd say the terrorists just keep winning.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Artist I guess it is a matter of interpretation what you refer to as "profiling", I would suggest that the Israelis are just using a sophisticated profiling method. However, the have very few airports in Israel, versus hundreds in the US, Europe.. etc. You see the logistics problem.

Rain I would prefer the scanner myself. However, years BEFORE 9/11 we were traveling to Europe and changed planes in Stanstead airport outside of London. I was asked to spread-eagle and was physically patted down by an airport security person. It's been going on YEARS prior to the US becoming interested and concerned.

As far as the safety of the scanners, I would not just assume our government automatically lies to us (Tea Baggers do this). Measurement of the scanner's radiation output is easily measured by simple instruments. If you look at the images, they expose an area just sufficient to penetrate the clothing; in fact the radiation HAS to be low or it would look like an x-ray and you would see skeletons. It shows the difference in the absorption of dense physical objects versus clothing.

It is true that you would receive far more background radiation exposure actually flying in the thinner, and therefore less protective, atmosphere at 30,000' altitude.

There are several sources for information on atmospheric radiation. One states: "At commercial aircraft altitudes cosmic radiation is much more intense than on the ground. Even though exposure can be a hundred times greater at these altitudes than it is on the ground, it is still fairly small. It would take about 100 one-way flights between Toronto and Vancouver to obtain the same exposure as we get in one year from other sources of natural background radiation."

That the cloudy images have any "sexual" or suggestive attributes I think are, of course, silly. The point of my article is that there is a more efficient and effective method than the inefficient and ineffective procedure of checking every single passenger.

secret agent woman said...

I saw a clip of a man going through a full body scanner - it was embarrassingly detailed and I would be loathe to submit to that. And yet, I hate the pat-down thing as well, although it does help that it's a same-sex agent. But not much.

(While I'm on the subject of hates, also hate that Japanese video. hat doesn't count as humor in my book.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent I Googled "explicit TSA body scans" to see what would appear in images. I was a bit surprised - in some of the images one could clearly identify male genitalia!

The question then becomes, as you point out, which methods are least intrusive. The point I am making that these intrusive scans applied to everyone may still not be the best way to ensure security.

On the video: humor strikes people in different ways. Video is pretty low-brow for sure. Some may think it's sexist; though my wife, who we both consider a Feminist, thought it was funny. I think the British version of "The Office" is hilarious; the American version has been dumbed-down for American audiences. And most situation comedies routinely portray the father/husband as the blithering dolt while the mother/wife is the focus of intellect. I find that offensive.

Come to think of it, I like "the Three Stooges" and my wife hates it.

Artist and Geek said...

Robert-I strongly believe in the sharing of knowledge so that people can make an informed decision. I also hope that when people take the time to comment, they're invited to discuss and offer their opinions.
At times I'm not certain that my comments in particular, are welcome on your blog.

However, I read your response to RAIN. To compare any focused scanner with background cosmic radiation is inaccurate.

The main problem with the scanner is that it focuses ALL of its "radiation" on our biggest organ: the skin. The settings are not lowered for children, who are much smaller. Even low level targeted radiation is cumulative and measuring it is not as simple as you suggest. Not all radiation is alike.

Until definitive research has been done, many doctors are telling cancer survivors to ask for a pat down. And the horror stories about those have already started to pour in.

If recent events are any indication, these new security measures may prove to be a complete waste of money.

Sheldon H. Jacobson said...

Our comments may be of interest to your readers.

http://illinois.edu/lb/article/72/45559

Robert the Skeptic said...

Artist I am not sure why you think your comments are not welcome on my blog? You have mentioned this on more than one occasion; I don't believe I have censored you on any occasion.

I welcome dissenting positions. In this case, I did some further research on the matter and found this article which would appear to support your position. Of particular interest are scanners which could "malfunction" and emit higher doses of radiation. Also the focusing of radiation is a question.

On the other hand, much of the technology we use daily (plastics, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, consumer electronics...) all contain some levels of toxicity. For the most part, these compounds/devices can be used effectively and moderately. Water will kill you if you use too much of it or use it improperly.

But again, the point of my article was that we may not be responding appropriately nor effectively to a perceived risk.

Unless a commenter is profane or makes personal attacks, reasoned contrary opinions are welcome. That is what science is all about!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Sheldon Thank you for sharing the article!

Rain said...

To me, the issue of being forced to take a risk that adds to our cumulative radiation is not something I appreciate; but it's minor for me. I don't fly frequently and do not have anything like a knee or hip replacement that would mean I'd be singled out every single time. This is particularly unfair to those who already have had life deal them a hard blow. I read one woman describe how the screener put her hands inside her underwear, against her skin and down to her genitals. There is nothing that justifies that.

They could do a lot by figuring out a system like for instance concealed weapon permits where people can go through an advance screening (like concealed weapon permits, with a doctor signing on that they have say a replacement joint or a breast or whatever that lets them bypass this system.

What is so nuts about it is that once a 'terrorist' with a bomb is in the airport, at the screening lines, they could detonate and kill hundreds plus destroy the airport's ability to function for a period of time. This all is to make us feel they are doing something but the 'something' needs to be before they are in line. Moreover, since the pat down doesn't go into the bodily openings, it wouldn't necessarily catch everything.

What I don't like is the randomness of it (other than the disabled guaranteed to be pulled aside) which has an 80 year old grandmother being singled out or a child. There is no excuse for not having something figured out by now to let those who are definitely safe and have something like a replacement joint get through.

There is nothing that will always make us safe even driving to the airport but assaulting people or forcing them to take a possible radiation risk, that's wrong. And all for 'our' safety. All I can say is our early ancestors who settled this land would've never gone anywhere if they'd been this afraid.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I agree as the point of my post was that there are better ways to more efficiently provide the necessary security. The work that Dr. Jacobson is proposing is one of these.

To some extent the public is asking for this kind of "theater" as it gives the impression that a aggressive security approach is being pursued. Whatever system is put into place, the public will also need confidence that it is effective. The public also becomes complacent as time goes on and no further hijacking takes place. However, the second another airline terrorist action is executed, the public will then be demanding further security. It is a dichotomy of human nature.

Rain said...

I am not sure what is wrong with us as a people. Do you have any idea? Something has certainly turned us from what I thought, at least, we once were. It's very depressing :(

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain You bring up a question that is not easily defined and less easily answered. The issue is as complex as humanity is diverse. Deception, mis-perception, hidden motives, bias are all characteristics which we not only tend to impose on others but which we often carry unconsciously within ourselves. Add to this that most issues are not clear cut but involve nuance and trade-offs.

There are things that are wrong but we must also recognize things we can be thankful for: That factions of one political party do not bomb or murder those of the opposing party, as happens in other countries. That we still have, or strive for, the rule-of-law here, that we have intelligent and sober voices which do occasionally get heard through the noise. We can disagree on the interpretations of our Constitutional form of representation, but we still have a Constitution.

Tomorrow, Americans take a break from all this and give thanks for what do do have. Enjoy, and thanks for contributing in all the ways that you do.

secret agent woman said...

For the record, I find male-bashing humor offensive as well. But the Benny Hill genre is disgusting to me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent This may sound strange coming from a fan of The Stooges.. but I never really cared for Benny Hill all that much either.