TSA 'Logic' Doesn't Add Up

SUBHEAD: The numbers don't add up to security, neither for the GAO auditors nor for a professional mathematician nor even for a video toting pilot, but do the infringed upon public follow the money and numbers?

By Keith Devlin in December 2010 for Mathematical Association of America - (http://www.maa.org/devlin/devlin_12_10.html)

Image above from http://www.meetup.com/WeWontFlyLA/calendar/15697784/

If ever I wanted to find a good example to illustrate the importance in today's society of ensuring that citizens achieve a basic level of quantitative literacy, the recent activities at the nation's airports provided it. Rather than spend increasing amounts of money, to say nothing of trampling on key provisions of our nation's founding constitution (in this case the Fourth Amendment), chasing a patently unachievable target, by spending a fraction of the money on elementary mathematical education we might achieve a lot more. 
I fly a lot, over 100,000 miles a year, giving me a George Clooney like (Up in the Air movie), privileged 1.5 Million Miles status on United Airlines, and access to those exclusive lounges. Since a month rarely passes by without my sitting in an aircraft seat, airline safety matters to me in a very real way. My job requires that I travel a lot, so I am very aware of the risks. People die in aircraft disasters, and one day it could be me. But how likely is it? 

 In terms of my life being brought to a sudden, firey end in an aircraft, the cause is far more likely to be mechanical failure on the airplane or human error in the cockpit or in the airline traffic control room than it is to be a terrorist act. The airline security measures put in place shortly after 9/11 reduced the risk of dying in a terrorist attack well below the non-terrorist risks we accept every time we step on an airplane. 

There is absolutely no rational reason for the current level of panic-driven insanity, which as far as I can tell, having made many international trips in the past year alone, is not found in any other country, including the world's number one potential terrorist target, Israel. The only reason I can think of for the panic in the United States is a fundamental failure to appreciate the risks. We want our President to protect us - at least presidents keep telling us that. 

There are many ways a president could keep us safe. A smart move would be to allocate protective resources according to the numbers. A nation that was truly concerned about preventing avoidable deaths would ban smoking tomorrow. It kills 440,000 people each year, according to the CDC, which works out at 50 per hour. Unlike full body scanners and intrusive "pat downs" (and yes, I've had one), banning smoking, while unpopular in some quarters and a threat to the livelihood of some (not a factor to take lightly), would not ride roughshod over a constitutional right. 

Or how about the president getting serious about eliminating drunk driving, which kills 15,000 people in the U.S. every year, with roughly eight drunk driving fatalities involving teenagers every day. And don't let me start about diet, exercise, and obesity. 

Over 80M people in the United States have one or more forms of cardiovascular disease and over 150,000 Americans under 65 are killed by it each year; 73M have high blood pressure; 17M have coronary heart disease; over 6M suffer a stroke; and 6M have heart failure. I'm not preaching or talking morals here. In our society we are free to make our own lifestyle decisions. 

It's about the math. Spending $85M to buy 500 full body scanners at $170,000 each, and turning the simple act of boarding an airplane into a circus, to try to eliminate a risk that is orders of magnitude less than many other risks people accept in their daily lives is a total waste of public funds, and is possible only because large numbers of people apparently don't do - or don't understand - the math. It makes absolute sense to organize our lives and our society to minimize risks. 

But not at the expense of life itself. Life is risky. The risk of dying in your home due to a fall are far greater than of dying in a terrorist attack on an airplane. What do you do, stay in bed all the time? Actually, that isn't a good idea. In addition to the life threatening health risks that result from not getting up and exercising, there is also a greater risk of dying by falling out of bed than from dying in an airline terrorist attack. 

As a species, we find ourselves with a sophisticated brain capable of rational decision making. Since the seventeenth century we have known how to assign reliable, meaningful numbers to life's risks so we can organize our lives appropriately. 

When we worry about a danger - an airline terrorist attack - that is far, far less likely than dying by drowning in our own bathtub, something has gone drastically wrong with our ability to act rationally. Yes, the terrorist threat required action. (On a personal level, much of my mathematical research since 9/11 has been directed into ensuring we remain ahead of and catch the terrorists, so I do take the threat seriously.) We took that action in the early years after 9/11, and it has been highly effective. Have we eliminated the risk? No, that is not possible. But we have reduced it well below many of life's other risks. 

Sitting in a narrow metal tube 39,000 feet in the air is not a situation evolution prepared us for. As a consequence, at the back of my mind as I board my next flight will be all kinds of risks. But terrorism will be so far down the list as to be out of sight. The TSA does not give me much, if any, feeling of security. The math does. 

I'd stake my life on the statistics. In fact I do, several times every month. To repeat my original point. Life in today's society requires not only a workable level of literacy, it demands a basic level of numeracy as well. Until that level is reached, we will continue to squander scarce resources chasing unachievable and unnecessary goals, while far more important and easily attainable measures to improve lives and maintain the nation's safety and security are ignored. Now I am preaching.  
  Video above:  "Sacramento-area pilot punished for YouTube video" on local ABCNew10 on 12/22/10 from (http://www.news10.net/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=113529) • Mathematician Keith Devlin is the Executive Director of the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR) at Stanford University and The Math Guy on NPR's Weekend Edition.

Aufitors Question TSA SUBHEAD: GAO Auditors question TSA's use of and spending on technology. By Dana Hedgpeth on 21 December 2010 for Washington Post - 
Before there were full-body scanners, there were puffers. The Transportation Security Administration spent about $30 million on devices that puffed air on travelers to "sniff" them out for explosives residue. Those machines ended up in warehouses, removed from airports, abandoned as impractical. The massive push to fix airport security in the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a gold rush in technology contracts for an industry that mushroomed almost overnight. Since it was founded in 2001, the TSA has spent roughly $14 billion in more than 20,900 transactions with dozens of contractors. 
In addition to beefing up the fleets of X-ray machines and traditional security systems at airports nationwide, about $8 billion also paid for ambitious new technologies. The agency has spent about $800 million on devices to screen bags and passenger items, including shoes, bottled liquids, casts and prostheses. For next year, it wants more than $1.3 billion for airport screening technologies. 
But lawmakers, auditors and national security experts question whether the government is too quick to embrace technology as a solution for basic security problems and whether the TSA has been too eager to write checks for unproven products. "We always want the best, the latest and greatest technology against terrorists, but that's not necessarily the smartest way to spend your money and your efforts," said Kip Hawley, who served as the head of the TSA from 2005 until last year. "We see a technology that looks promising, and the temptation is to run to deploy it before we fully understand how it integrates with the multiple layers we already have in place like using a watch list, training officers at every checkpoint to look for suspicious behavior and using some pat-downs." 
Some say the fact that the United States hasn't had another 9/11-level terrorist attackshows that the investment was money well spent. But government auditors have faulted the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, for failing to properly test and evaluate technology before spending money on it. The puffer machines, for example, were an early TSA attempt at improving electronic screening in airport security lines. Designed to dislodge explosive particles by shooting air blasts at passengers, the detectors turned out to be unreliable and expensive to operate. 
But they were deployed in many airports before the TSA had fully tested them, according to the Government Accountability Office. The puffers were "deployed even though TSA officials were aware that tests conducted during 2004 and 2005 on earlier [puffer] models suggested they did not demonstrate reliable performance in an airport environment," according to a GAO report from October 2009. TSA officials told the GAO that they had deployed the puffers to "respond quickly to the threat posed by a suicide bomber" after incidents on Russian airliners in 2004
The agency stopped buying and deploying the puffer machines to airports in June 2006. The GAO said in its October 2009 report that 116 puffers were in storage. A TSA spokesman said the agency had "since disposed of" the machines or transferred them to other agencies.
Analyzing risk The government auditors expressed similar concerns that the TSA hasn't done good assessments of the risk, cost benefits or performances of other new technologies for screening at checkpoints. The GAO has said that the TSA has "not conducted a risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis, or established quantifiable performance measures" on its new technologies. "As a result, TSA does not have assurance that its efforts are focused on the highest priority security needs."  In other cases, equipment to trace explosives and other devices for screening passengers have had technical problems and projected cost overruns, according to a recent GAO report. The full-body scanners that have made headlines in recent weeks for their revealing images of passengers were tested more thoroughly than the puffer machines before being deployed, the GAO has found. But the auditors faulted the agency for not fully justifying their cost, saying that the agency's plan to double the number of body scanners in coming years will require more personnel to run and maintain them - an expense of as much as $2.4 billion. "They're adding layers of security and technology, but they need to do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure this is worthwhile," said Steve Lord of the GAO's Homeland Security and Justice team, who has reviewed the TSA's purchases. "They need to look at whether there is other technology to deploy at checkpoints. Are we getting the best technology for the given pot of money? Is there a cheaper way to provide the same level of security through other technology?" John Huey, an airport security expert, said the TSA's contracts with vendors to buy more equipment and devices often aren't done in a "systematic way." "TSA has an obsession of finding a single box that will solve all its problems," Huey said. "They've spent and wasted money looking for that one box, and there is no such solution. . . . They respond to congressional mandates and the latest headlines of attempted terrorist attacks without any thought to risk management or separating out the threats in a logical way." TSA officials disagree. They say there are responsible processes in place to research, develop and fund new technologies for airport security. And they point out that some gee-whiz equipment that vendors have pitched has taken too long to develop or has been too expensive to produce. "We have to be predictive and acquire the best technology today to address the known threats by being informed of the latest intelligence and be proactive in working on what could be the next threats," said TSA Administrator John Pistole. "It is a tall order." He said that technology isn't the only security effort underway. The TSA uses a combination of tactics, including terrorist watch lists, intelligence gathering and training security officers, to look for suspicious behavior. Trial and error The billions of dollars the TSA has spent on technology has been "a good investment,"Pistole said, but he said that developing devices is full of risk. "It is a lot of art with the science. We're always competing for the best technology at the best price. It is just a constantly changing dynamic environment." After 9/11, there was talk of cargo containers that could withstand explosions, for example, but airport security experts said they never came to fruition, in part because they were too heavy and airlines didn't want to pay for the extra fuel to carry them. Another much talked-about device, a shoe scanner that would allow passengers to keep their shoes on while going through a checkpoint, has not been fully deployed to airports. Twelve companies are vying to provide shoe scanners to U.S. airports, but the TSA has not chosen one.
"We don't always see a well-defined roadmap of what they want," said Tom Ripp, president of the Security and Detection Systems division of L-3 Communications, a major security contractor. Part of the problem is that experts disagree about what constitutes an effective airport security system, and policy makers are reluctant to embrace some techniques - such as profiling - that American society finds objectionable. "Since the introduction of metal detectors in the 1970s, technologies have been bought and cobbled together in a somewhat piecemeal approach," said Tom LaTourrette, a security expert at RAND Corp., a nonprofit research institute. "No one has been able to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how to best structure aviation security," he said. Quick solutions The rush to improve security and quickly protect the public has also led to some shortcuts in contracting procedures, according to government reports. A March audit from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general looked at 29 support service contracts that the TSA had issued to buy new technologies for baggage and passenger screening equipment, worth a total of $662 million. It found that the agency "did not provide adequate management and oversight" on the contracts. It concluded that the TSA "did not have reasonable assurance that contractors were performing as required, that it contracted for the services it needed, that it received the services it paid for, or that taxpayers were receiving the best value."... Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to the above report.
Above video "Sacramento whistleblowing pilot explains why he did it" on local ABCNew10 on 12/23/10 from (http://www.news10.net/news/story.aspx?storyid=113731&catid=2)


Janos Keoni Samu said...

Ridiculous comment about the shoe scanners. I have been traveling between the U.S. and European cities, and when coming back no European airport security will make you take off your shoes. Why? Because their overall scanners have the capability of scanning the shoes too. Upon the suggestion of a Swedish pilot I tested it at Coppenhagen airport. A pilot suggested that I slip a quarter into my sock before going through security. I did it. The quarter was comfortable under the arch of my foot in the sock. The scanner signaled and I had to explain to the security officer why I had the quarter in my sock. He laughed and he said "Americans always want to re-invent the wheel. Why not import it instead?" Upon returning I asked a TSA officer at San FRancisco International Airport. His answer was that "for security reasons we cannot trust their equipment". What a lie! TSA does not rescan arriving overseas passengers upon entering the U.S. So, they trust the result of the equipment (overseas scanners) that they said they would not trust. I am convinced that the shoe-take-off in the U.S. is just another way of showing off to the traveling citizens that they are being controlled, so they just have to follow orders and march like the sheep.

Mauibrad said...

You are right, Janos. The shoe thing is a bunch of B.S.

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