Attention dastardly terrorists: Do not discuss your Doomsday plots at the Ottawa airport; the Mounties are listening
by Eileen | 2:15 pm, June 18, 2012 | Comments Off
The U.S. has airport security practices so insensible and generally offensive to decency that it wouldn’t take much for any other country to set itself apart – in a good way. For crying out loud, when something as simple as not routinely robbing passengers and feeling up children puts you ahead of the game, how difficult can it be?
Too difficult, apparently.
Fast on our heels to prove they too can be asinine gits over security, Canada will now be snooping on passengers’ conversations through a network of hidden microphones scattered about airports.
At great expense, the aptly titled Project SPAWN will assemble a library of businessmen trying to hire hookers, drunk spring-breakers barely making flights, and haggard parents wondering aloud why they thought it would be wise to take a toddler on a plane. I will just about bet my own life they will not stop a single terrorist plot or even uncover evidence of one.
Reading through the publicly released report on SPAWN actually makes it clear the laundry list of acronyms involved in this plan are not planning to catch terrorists at all. That’s just the public rallying cry to drum up support for implementing dragnet surveillance in order to catch drugs and undeclared currency.
Obvious civil liberty problems aside, this is a worrying admission by Canadian law enforcement that they are unable to stop organized crime and major smuggling with existing laws. Unless it’s sheer laziness – why get out there and work when you can sit in an air conditioned room listening in on strangers?
Myself, I don’t see the attraction in making a career of peeping at other people, but I also tend not to be interested in other people, in the first place. Still, state-sanctioned voyeurism never has a problem hiring, so I presume there’s a personality for every job.
The article caught my eye, firstly, because I’m a confessed fan of privacy, but also because it shows Canada is all hot and bothered to start doing precisely the inane stuff we’ve been proving doesn’t work for several years.
To the detriment of all of us, America’s exploding anti-terror industry now does everything short of cocktail napkin folds, gobbles up billions every year, rides roughshod over the Bill of Rights…and has yet to catch a single terrorist, even if we use the widest possible definition of a terrorist.
These oversteps, on our own part and up north in the land of beer and hockey, are setting dangerous precedents for what citizens tolerate and treat as normal in the course of going about their daily business. Should being spied on by invisible strangers just to take a flight become normal? We seem to be tolerating irradiation and rampant theft, so it’s a valid question how far American or Canadian citizens will let this go.
Please, Canada, if you must mimic us on something, don’t make it the goddam TSA.
It is axiomatically true that the sort of potential terrorists and major criminals the state needs to worry about are the ones who would never do something as stupid as plan their attack aloud inside a government controlled building.
And it is just as true that terrorists work on the principle of surprise. The absolute last thing any radicalized loon is going to do is recreate an attack that already happened.
Yet American, and now Canadian, airport security works on the bewildering assumption that world-class super criminals catch up on various dirty plots in the open and happily present real ID when ever asked. Thus, the converse is also axiomatically true; any criminal – or terrorist – stupid enough to be caught by such Keystone Kop antics is no threat to anyone, except, quite possibly, himself.
Homeland Security’s hand-wringing and alarmism aside, such savvy, hardened terrorists are endangered, if not extinct. The unflappable terrorist with endless funds and unbeatable superweapons is as much a fiction as James Bond. Vanishing civil liberties, eye-watering budgets, and a weary public are all, though, quite real.
Aviation security has become a race to the bottom, with successive violations of human dignity and common sense trotted out under the tired banner of counter terrorism. I am not saying I don’t believe in smart anti-terror policy; I am saying nearly all of what is publicly done in the name of fighting those pesky terrorists is wasteful and often disingenuous.
Security experts will wearily point out that focusing efforts at the actual point of hypothetical attack, requiring ID for everything from checking in to buying a bagel, and treating every person as representing an equally likely threat are foolish misdirections of effort and finite resources.
Right off the bat, smart counter-terror policy should not be allowing potential attacks to proceed to the point where attackers are entering their intended target on the day of the planned attack before being stopped. The mere idea that an individual who has planned, funded, and equipped a team of crack operatives and has gone undetected by the world’s anti-terror elite is going to be stopped by a member of the TSA is farcical, yet this is the assumption that our post-9/11 practices make.
Secondarily, the identification lunacy assumes that criminals and terrorists use their real IDs when carrying out nefarious acts and will blithely present real ID if stopped.
Remember, the 9/11 hijackers entered the country using their real names and conducted all their business under those names. The problem was never a failure to identify them by their legal names; it was the inability to predict a man’s intentions by scrutinizing his driver’s license, coupled with the absence of better intelligence tactics. Had the TSA existed on that early fall morning, it is almost certain all the hijackers would have easily cleared the check-point. A decade later, it is still the case that merely demanding ID at every juncture tells us nothing about a individual’s plans.
Speaking to the last idea, terrorism at the level of the 9/11 attacks is vanishingly rare. In all human history we have precisely an instance of such a large-scale attack actually being carried out, let alone getting past the planning stages.
When looking for a tiny needle in a humongous haystack, even a false positive rate at a fraction of a percent will subject thousands of innocent people to harassment, humiliation, lost time and opportunity, and the hassle of clearing their name.
Let’s imagine that Canada’s grid of spyware built into the very walls goes live.
How many people will be roughly taken aside and interrogated for using a ‘forbidden word’ in casual conversation or for chatting in a vaguely Middle Eastern tongue? What happens when airport employees begin to see surreptitiously recorded conversations added to their work records? How long before concrete evidence comes to light that those trusted to spy on travelers in the name of security are instead using their power to remotely look down women’s blouses, peer over people’s shoulders as they conduct online banking, and eavesdrop on personal phone calls?
Stateside, the TSA plans to catch ‘terrorists’ by using hidden cameras and body heat sensors to pick up on facial expressions and eye movements supposedly indicative of terrorist intent. Never mind that large-scale terrorists attacks are so rare as to mean there is nowhere near adequate data to form an idea of what terroristic intent would look like. We don’t even have reason to assume all terrorists display the same behavior on the eve of an attack.
This plan assumes that poorly trained TSOs are going to function as topflight psychologists, astutely picking out the subtlest hints of malevolent. On top of that, we are to believe they will accurately tell all the non-terrorist ways people can be deceptive apart from bona fide terrorist thought. Those are problems of bad logic and flawed understanding of psychology. This plan also involves allowing lowly paid people in a job devoid of prestige to detain and harass airline passengers at their leisure, and offers such vague criteria for stopping anyone that it will effectively impossible to ‘prove’ TSOs are misusing their authority. That’s a failure to take the most obvious facets of human nature into consideration.
Canada’s proposal suffers from the same drawbacks. It’s even worse in that everyone will be spied on. The hidden authorities carrying out the eavesdropping have conveniently freed themselves from justifying who will and will not be a target, at all. Everyone traveling is fair game; I suppose the only fine point is who will be detained on some pretense.
This takes us right back to the problem of how many people who be put through a lesser circle of hell, their ordeal cavalierly written off as negligible collateral damage in the perpetual war on terror. Unclassified reports on FAST, the TSA’s proposed pre-crime program, speak of 70% success rates.
Remember that bit about how, given the volume of passenger traffic across US airspace, a false positive rate of less than one percent will still mean thousands of people will be falsely detained? Now, think about a false positive rate of 30%. Even that is almost certainly far too sunny a prediction. How, we are bound to wonder, did the TSA test this frightening new program? Were volunteers told to loiter about airports and act “like a terrorist”? What methodology are we to imagine successfully mimicked the reality of supercriminals on the prowl?
Overwhelmingly, psychologists and behavior experts agree that humans are, simply, awful at picking out liars and malicious actors based on facial expressions and body language. Paul Ekman, the researcher behind TSA’s claims to the contrary, is poorly regarded in his field, stopped submitting his work for peer review decades ago, and consistently makes claims that no one has been able to duplicate. The good news is that the government is not really reading your mind. The bad news is that, as part of insisting that they can, they will render travel and using public facilities an unending nightmare.
How nightmarish? Well, that 70% accuracy figure is ludicrous. Actually data from TSA’s operations, rather than from a rarefied experiment, indicate that, of all the travelers stopped, less than 1% are ultimately arrested – and not one of those arrests has been for anything related to terror. We have an insanely expensive program to catch outstanding warrants on relatively minor criminal matters.
Challenged on their failure to identify a single terrorist, the TSA perpetually assures us they are working through data and will let us know just how many would-be Mohammad Atta’s have been thwarted. Let’s be honest, though. If any of the TSA’s theatrical tactics pegged an actual terrorist, we’d all be driven to desert caves in an attempt to get away from the nonstop trumpeting of that fact. That the TSA can provide nothing but a recital of how many pocket knives are confiscated each week and how many bench warrants are cleared when America’s traffic court scofflaws fly home for Thanksgiving tells us everything about what we’re getting for our money.
To side step these accusations, what we are seeing American and Canadian airport security effect a dishonest little bit of mission shift. Unable to produce a solitary terrorist as justification for all the trouble they’ve caused, they have giddily embraced mission creep. The TSA manufactures long lists of items and actions that are magically deemed to be incompatible with security and congratulates itself on how well it plays by its own ever-changing rules.
Canada, going by the report justifying SPAWN’s network of microphones and cameras, intends to go after drug traffic, smuggling, airport employees with criminal records, and whatever else comes to mind. In both cases, what’s happening is that ineffective organizations are artificially increasing their portfolio to conceal the fact that they’ve failed utterly at their stated core mission.
While that means more money and power for those agencies as they aggressively fail upward, the average citizen is paying for all of it, in more ways than one.
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