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October 9, 2003

Feeling safer yet?
Posted by Teresa at 12:11 PM *

You know those upgraded airport baggage screeners we’re supposed to be getting? A story just out from AP says the tests given to potential screeners when they apply, and the training program they undergo thereafter, are so unchallenging that they’d embarrass a Pac-10 football coach with an illiterate star quarterback:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The written tests given potential baggage screeners at airports never asked applicants to show they could identify dangerous objects inside luggage.

In addition, screeners hired by the government to check baggage for bombs were given most of the answers to the tests, according to an internal investigation by the Homeland Security Department.

“Not a single question called up on a student to demonstrate a sufficient mastery of the class content to achieve the purpose of the training,” the agency’s acting inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, wrote to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York.

During classroom training, screeners were given the questions in open-book quizzes and then the answers. The course ended with a closed-book examination of 25 questions. Nineteen of the questions on the final test were identical or virtually identical and three were similar to those on the quizzes, Ervin said.

One question asked “How do threats get aboard an aircraft?” The possible answers were (a) In carry-on bags; (b) In checked-in bags; © In another person’s bag; and (d) All of the above. The correct answer is (d).

A second question asked why it is important to screen bags for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A possible answer: “The ticking timer could worry other passengers.” The right answer: “IEDs can cause loss of lives, property and aircraft.”

Schumer, who asked for the investigation, said the point of making airport security a federal function was to improve safety by employing better-trained workers.

“The questions appear as if they were written by Jay Leno’s gag writer,” said Schumer. “They’ve got to do a better job.”

Ervin’s letter to Schumer was dated August 29 but was not released until Wednesday. The senator’s office said the letter was meant to be distributed sooner, but got lost in the mail due to problems with the Senate mail system that have been occurring since the anthrax scare about two years ago.
“Anytime you have a government undertake a program of this size and scope, it’s going to be fraught with problems,” Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), Chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said apologetically after the story came out.

No kidding? Curriculum development takes work? Who’d have thought it?

Thing is, these aren’t curriculum development problems. This is what you do when you want to satisfy a curriculum requirement without actually teaching anything. I have to wonder what Rep. Mica would say about a public school that used these same tricks to prop up their students’ test scores.

What distresses me is that this observance of the letter of the law but not its substance is an old habit with airport security. I posted about this back on October 05, 2001, in the midst of a long rant on several subjects.

Here’s the pertinent section. It used to be thick with links, but I’ve stripped out the dead ones. A lot of the remaining links are to organized labor sites, but that’s just because they keep their archives available longer than most online news sites do. Anyway:
I’m glad I’ve never had to work in airport security. There’s a reason scanners have a turnover rate between one hundred and four hundred percent annually. Working conditions are miserable. The pay is bone-scrapingly low, with no benefits and derisory raises.

The effect on airport security is a well-known problem. The GAO and the FAA have been issuing warnings about it for years. As one FAA security administrator put it, “At 400 percent turnover it’s hard to train people to sharpen pencils.” He added that the higher standards the FAA was considering might or might not help boost pay, since many airlines simply went for the security company that was the lowest bidder. Which is in fact true. Moreover, for years now many airlines have been lobbying against security upgrades, which cost more and create airport delays.

Let us pause here to reflect that the invisible hand of the marketplace has no brain attached to it.

The airport security industry is dominated by two companies, Argenbright and Huntleigh. They’re experts at lowball bids. Neither pays a living wage or provides benefits. Employee training is minimal, and they place no particular value on experience. The only activity they pursue with any degree of enthusiasm is employee intimidation. Both companies have been repeatedly cited for labor violations. Huntleigh’s management has come in for other criticism as well.

So, when it comes to actually providing security services, neither company is what you’d call results-oriented. This is because they’re not really in the security business. What they do is satisfy the letter of the law at the lowest possible cost.
In spite of everything, they’re still not taking this stuff seriously.

I am not unwilling to be reassured. In fact, I’ll come right out and admit that I would like to be reassured. But there’s not one single issue about which the Department of Homeland Security has made me feel a bit more secure. And with their mandate, and budget, and latitude of operation, by now they should have managed something along that line.

Comments on Feeling safer yet?:
#1 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 03:29 PM:

Several years ago, my wife was a manager of a "major national daycare provider". She frequently complained about her innability to attract any employees worth hiring. Naturally, this was a result of the corporation putting a ridiculously low ceiling on starting pay - with a little initiative, you could get a better offer from one of the neighborhoods fine fast food establishments, and not have to worry about things like making sure the children don't injure themselves or others, whether or not anyone has slipped your notice during a field trip and escaped, or protecting yourself and the company from any number of potential lawsuits or criminal arrests. Let's see - more money and no responsiblity, or less money and the lives of a dozen children in my hands... that's a tough choice. She eventually chose the former, and now, as a medical records clerk, makes nearly double what she made as a daycare director.

I suspect that they are having similar problems attracting airport screeners. Thousands of human lives depending on your ability to do your job... one error on your part could end in nothing less than disaster... and you are pulling in nearly, what, $300 a week? Gosh. I guess they would need to give applicants the answers to the test just to get enough applicants able to actually pass it.

And the problem doesn't end there. A company that does this to the grunt employees usually also offers less than stellar conditions for lower and middle management, compounding the problem by filling these ranks with underachievers, KFC management program dropouts, little Napoleonic patriots, and people who couldn't pass the psych exam to get into the police academy.

#2 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 03:53 PM:

"...[Dept. of Homeland Security's] acting inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin..."

That's really his name? That's.... odd. For some reason I can't get past that. Anyway.

This sort of stuff is what happens when the administration takes a massive surplus and turns into a massive deficit. No money available for salary, training, equipment, or benefits. You have to wonder how serious the administration really is about airport safety. On top of that, as Jeff said, the pressure must be huge-- one slipup and who knows what could happen.

The Homeland Security Dept. has been around for what, two years now? Is the color-coded alert system the only thing they've done in that time?

#3 ::: Ter Matthies ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 04:01 PM:

I was in Europe last month, where the security on trains was more than my last rail travel in 1998. The passport inspectors were armed, with a gun and a laptop. They carried the latter like a snack tray, suspended from shoulder straps. I'da laughed at that, but it's not funny at the time, and I was trying to answer in Czech which took extra energy.

The security at Frankfurt airport was even tighter than before, and they've always been one of the strictest airports I've been through. Because I was making a connection, I only went through three security checkpoints. They were taking baby strollers apart to put through x-ray. Every passenger had a wand reading, each belt was removed and inspected, and they felt our collar and cuffs.

The staff was friendly and multilingual, but the atmosphere was so serious that two children in different lines went into hysterics when it was their turn to move forward. Yes, they were also frisking the kids.

I wonder if they'll check our buttons in future.

When I departed Houston, my luggage was opened after I checked it through. TSA left a note to notify me. I'm glad my 321 page manuscript was still there, and that it didn't look like coded messages.

This year I've been to four countries, flown to the east, west, and south USA coasts, and the security measures from airport to airport are inconsistent. There's no way to plan ahead and allow time for procedures.

It takes commitment to fly nowadays. If you're a parent traveling with kids, it takes extra courage.

#4 ::: seaan ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 04:17 PM:

Back in the mid-80's I worked at a security job for at GE's Nuclear Engery (NEBO) plant. I made about $5.25/hour, and the supervisors made $5.95/hour (can't forget the $0.25/hour bonus for graveyard). This compared to about $7-8/hour for the starting janitor salary.

The NEBO plant had a bunch of test equipment, it's own power substation, and a number of very real potential hazards (although they had moved fuel rod production to a different site by the time I was working there). Practically speaking, during any emergency occurring in the off-hours, the first 30 minutes or so would find the multi-million dollar site in the hands of a guy making less money than a starting Janitor.

Personally speaking, the security job did help me learn the lesson that no matter how low paid a job is, there is still some meaning about "doing it right". Unfortunately, I think most of the people working there never learned that lesson. I heard a number of stories about airport security back than 96 a big increase in responsibilities and hardly any more pay than industrial security.

I have to say that none of the horror stories about the quality and training of airport security surprises me in the least. It is mostly a repetitive low-paid and low-status job, although I think the government involvement has potential to improve the pay and status part.

Ironically my security guarding does help me from time to time. I volunteered to be on the company emergency response teams (fire and earthquakes are the two main threats in Silicon Valley). As an applied cryptographer and programmer it also gives me some insight into the users of systems that I design.

#5 ::: India ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 04:19 PM:

Sounds like the baggage screener tests were written by the same bright bulbs who wrote the NY State driver's license test (which I passed). Fortunately, there's a nonwritten component to the driving test (which I failed, twice).

Maybe security personnel should have to pass a practical examination, as well? Like, "Here are ten actors playing travelers, and here's their luggage. Go to it." One of the fake travelers should be carrying plastic knitting needles; the examinee who finds them and makes a sensible response gets to train for a supervisory position, at a higher rate of pay.

#6 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 04:38 PM:

Let us pause here to reflect that the invisible hand of the marketplace has no brain attached to it.

Carve that into stone and place it over the doors of every university economics department.

#7 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 04:46 PM:



#8 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 04:47 PM:

On a recent return trip from Alaska through LA to Miami I "entertained" myself by figuring out ways someone could beat the system. After scaring myself into having the shakes I stopped, took a deep breath, and decided to never ever think about it again.
There is nothing in place right now that even comes close to efficient security in the United States.
Nope, I don't feel safer either.

#9 ::: seaan ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 05:18 PM:

The NEBO plant is in San Jose. The fuel rod processing was moved into a remote location around Livermore. The site was still there a year ago, but I have no idea what they are doing now.

The main plant is largely a paper-work factory now - GE has not sold a new plant since 1980 or so. I happened to work at NEBO during a transition when they laid off most of their manufacturing people and started hiring engineers and the like. At the point, the NCR was churning out around 1000 regulations per year (~3 a day). Someone had to make sure the current plants were in compliance, or figure out what changes had to be made.

As an aside, I learned that GE is not a good a company to work for -- at least not as a peon during that time. It was very hierarchal, and they treated most employees as cogs contrasted with giving upper managers special treatment. They did not seem to value their mid-level professionals very much (engineers, programmers, etc.) At the time, I described it to my friends as "2nd Wave" employment practices (referring to Toffler's book: Third Wave).

#10 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 05:44 PM:

And the tools available to airport screening staff do nothing to counter the problems of low wages, poor training and low motivation - as the Confessions of a baggage screener from last month's Wired show:

The current system discourages screeners from thinking for themselves, says Issac Yeffet, a former security chief of El Al who's now a consultant based in Manhattan. "Let's say I'm a screener, and I open the luggage to do a search and find chocolate or peanut butter - I'm happy because I found what the machine flagged." Although the CTX highlights suspect items, screeners don't run bags back through the machine after the hand search to make sure they've correctly identified what really caused the alarm. No one's taught to think in terms of how a would-be terrorist might try to game the system. "I can assure you, from my experience and knowledge," says Yeffet, "that most of the explosives will be in a false bottom."
#11 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 05:47 PM:

As an aside, I learned that GE is not a good a company to work for -- at least not as a peon during that time. It was very hierarchal, and they treated most employees as cogs contrasted with giving upper managers special treatment.

GE has no monopoly on this HR philosophy. I spent six years working for an "international package delivery company" that had the same attitude. In that six year period, it went from being a great place to work to a real hell hole. My last year there, they had their first "across the board cost of living increase" in ten years. I didn't get one, though, because I was already making too much money. See, my pay increases were based on performance measures, and I had always received excellent performance reviews. So, because I had been such a good employee, they rewarded me by freezing my pay scale.

(I could go on. In fact, I will.)

One night, a fellow employee found $70,000 in cash, in unmarked plastic baggies, that had fallen out of a broken package. She was alone when she found it. She turned it in. As a reward, the company cut her a Bravo Zulu award check of $25. The manager made a speech and presented it to her, along with a lapel pin, in a pre-shift meeting. As she looked at it, the employee said, "I'll know what to do next time."

#12 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 09:24 PM:

At Worldcon, I had a discussion with a very much traveled fan who reported a potentially scary incident from over the summer.

He travels with tools including a large knife. He normally packs these things in checked luggage, but happened to dump it in his carryon. So, while in flight he's looking in his bag...and realizes he has a large knife in the cabin. So what does he do? He just zips up his bag.

Now if someone can accidentally bring a knife into the cabin of a plane, how good could the screening system be?

#13 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 10:06 PM:

Well, given that as of 9/11, a knife in the cabin is no longer a threat, that doesn't bother me. I'm not worried about a guy -- or five -- with knives. I know that if anyone tries to take over a plane, they're going to have to fight every passenger on board. The rule used to be "Cooperate, and you'll almost certainly live. Fight, and you may die." Now, it's "Cooperate, and you will almost certainly die, and abet the murder of more. Fight, and you might live."

The whole "sharp object" nonsense not only doesn't make the aircraft more secure, it's a completely wasted effort -- the plane's better off if guys like me have our leathermen and such on us.

I'm much more worried about someone getting on the ramp and shoving a bag-bomb into the cargo hold well after all the screening -- by the way, do you know that to the fancy Invision CTX-5000 x-ray machines, peanut butter and semtex look the same?

Getting onto a ramp is trivial. Spend some time watching baggage and cargo flow, and finding the weak spots is trivial.

We're not only not willing to pay for better security, what little we are spending is fighting the last war. Hijacking a passenger airplane to use as a missle is a one time trick -- you can't ever go back to hostage taking, and there's no reason for the passengers to cooperate with you.

Money can help with security -- but it is brains that really do the job. Right now, the only thing that we've done that really helps the problem is the armored cockpit doors that make it much harder to take control of the aircraft.

#14 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 11:01 PM:

Though I'm sure most of you are aware of it, I will plug Bruce Schneier's new book, BEYOND FEAR, which contains outstanding discussions of security issues in general and some pointed comments on airports in particular.

I happened to be reading Elise's copy in the airport on our most recent flight (oops, almost wrote "last" -- remember, verbal insensitivity injures multitudes on a quotidian basis). In the background, Airport CNN was running. They got to the announcement by Son of Frankenstein that we had "eliminated the threat of Iraqi WMDs" just as I reached Bruce's explanation of the distinction between "threat" and "risk." Cue Twilight Zone theme.

Next up: Heimatssicherungsdienst eliminates the threat of giant telepathic oysters from the planet Quildefonse rigging the Super Bowl. Estimated cost, $1.4 billion, plus the cost of construction of a new, telepathically shielded stadium in Houston.

#15 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 11:02 PM:

I think you've missed the point of the anecdote, Erik: The screeners didn't even an obvious problem, a great big X-ray-opaque knife. (And the post-9/11 climate may have made knives less of a threat to anyone but the passengers and stewards, but the screeners are supposed to find them nonetheless.) If they can't even do that, how likely are they to find the semtex?

#16 ::: DonBoy ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 11:38 PM:

Look closely at the choices in one of the questions:

One question asked 93How do threats get aboard an aircraft?94 The possible answers were (a) In carry-on bags; (b) In checked-in bags; (c) In another person92s bag; and (d) All of the above. The correct answer is (d).

-- from the point of view of a screener, what's the difference between b and c? Or for that matter, between a and c? They're all bags, and if you're the screener, they're all other people's.

#17 ::: Debbie Notkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2003, 03:10 AM:

Like Erik Olson, I do in fact feel safer on airplanes, because I think that airplane hijacking is basically a dead crime. Yes, suicide hijacking is possible, but there are oh so many "better" forms of suicide crimes.

I do not, however, feel at all good about how airport security is handled. While I generally feel as safe most of the time as I did before 9/11, any time I really stop to think about what the risks are, I can see potential everywhere. Terrorism cannot be stopped, though certain major threats can be minimized.

AFAIK, the only useful airport security system in the world is Israel's double-interview system, which requires time, trained personnel, and the willingness to truly delay passengers and flights. All of these are un-American.


(Also What Mike Said. I haven't read Beyond Fear, but I have heard Bruce speak on the radio and he's brilliant on this topic.

#18 ::: Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2003, 10:02 AM:

I think that assuming another hijacking can never take place is assuming a bit too much. True, I don't think it can happen again with box cutters, but it can certainly happen again. All that needs to happen is for people to think it can't happen again.

#19 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2003, 10:35 AM:

I think you've missed the point of the anecdote, Erik: The screeners didn't even an obvious problem, a great big X-ray-opaque knife.

I didn't miss that point, I simply ignored it as irrelevant. It is very difficult to impossible to screen without both false negatives (there was a weapon, you missed it) and false positives (there wasn't a weapon, but you thought there was.) The fact that a knife slipped through doesn't surprise me.

What would surprise me is if there aren't at least five people in the air *right now* with knives that they forgot they had, and that screeners missed. Imagine a false negative rate of .001%. Multiply out by the number of passengers per day/week/month/year.

Absolutes almost never exist in security. No matter how much you throw at the problem, Joe Badguy might get lucky and walk on the plane with a weapon -- and Jane Goodguy gets strip-searched when both the X-ray and chemical detectors light up, and it turns out she's clean.

The problem I have is not that we are screening. It is how we are screening, and what we are looking for. Spending the time and money to stop knives is time and money not spent looking for threats that are more dangerous to the plane, to the passengers, and to the people on the ground.

I think that assuming another hijacking can never take place is assuming a bit too much.

True. But I think that the chances of a "succesful" hijacking have dropped so low that spending the amount of time and money that we are is seriously degrading responses to other real threats, threats that are much more likely to be successful.

Remember: The new attack, launched on 9/11/2001, of using hijacked planes as missles on ground targets, went from effective to failure in less than ninety minutes, when the PA passengers figured out what had happened, and went to retake the plane. Anyone who saw what happened that day will not sit and let a plane be taken.

Thus, instead of having to frighten a cabin full of people, you now have to render them incapbable of resistance. This is a much harder proposition. Add in the locked cockpits, strict orders to *never* surrender the plane, and fighter cover that now has practiced procedures to destroy an airliner (and all aboard) that won't follow ATC orders, and you find that hijacking passenger airplanes isn't a useful strategy.

(Smart people will notice the word "passenger" in that last sentence.)

I expect, on the passenger aircraft side of the problem, that the next attacks will return to the "get a bomb on board" attack, or somebody will bag one with a missle, or somebody really clever will come up with a completely new attack. Note that passenger resistance and locked cockpits should be useless in these attacks (Thank Ghugle Ried was stupid.) Note that screening the passengers and doing credit checks are even less useful in stopping most of these attacks. Obviously, we don't know the counter to the unknown attack.

That's how you think secure. We think we have built one part of the fence very tall -- and we're assuming that the bad guys will still climb that part of the fence. No -- they're going to try to climb a lower part of the fence.

This is not to say we want no screening. But people who think budgeting isn't a part of security live in a fantasy world of infinite resources. A dollar spent block attack FOO cannot be spent to block attack BAR. This is a smartly spent dollar if FOO is the likely attack -- and less smart if it isn't.

We're spending far too much on preventing hijackings when we've already have two very useful counters in place, the cockpit doors, and a cabin of people who know about 9/11.

And, you know, if you let them carry knives/screwdrivers/whatnot, they'd be even *more* effective at preventing hijackings.

#20 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2003, 11:59 AM:

Knives are messy.

Issue every passenger a Taser gun as they get on board.

"Armed passengers are polite passengers."

#21 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2003, 03:57 PM:

Teachers, at least in big city schools, gave up years ago, even in the best schools. About 20 years ago, a good friend who taught 8th grade social studies in a pretty good New York public school showed me a quiz he gave after his unit on Egypt. There were 10 fill-in-the-blank questions, including:

The main river of Egypt is the ____.

The rules of Egypt were the ______.

They were buried in huge tombs called the _____.

Simple-minded for 8th grade, you say? Then I noticed, written along the bottom margin, the words "Nile," "Pharaohs" and "Pyramids." He told me that without having the answers, his students could never answer the questions.

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire is proceeding apace.

#22 ::: davdi ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2003, 04:15 PM:

" I have to wonder what Rep. Mica would say about a public school that used these same tricks to prop up their students92 test scores."

He'd say, way to go Houston!

#23 ::: Elusis ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2003, 06:35 PM:

FWIW, my mother (age 56, very capable woman with two MA degrees and years of teaching experience), just failed the test to be a baggage screener. She says they showed drawings of objects as they might appear on an x-ray screen and were told to identify them, which she was not able to do well enough. Her significant other (age late-50s, National Guard reservist as well as some sort of government employee) also failed it.

On the one hand, I'm a little disturbed that people are being shown drawings of x-rays rather than, say, actual x-rays. On the other hand, the test was hardly a gimme as both of these folks are quite intelligent (though perhaps not intelligent in the way that one needs to be intelligent to be a good screener. But we'll never know, because they were looking at drawings of x-rays.)

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2003, 08:13 PM:

If an armed society is a polite society, why aren't Arizona and Oklahoma and Beirut world-famous for their courtesy?

Every generation is shaky on history and geography. For some reason, those subjects get more interesting as you grow up.

#25 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2003, 08:50 PM:

Hey, Oklahoma is a darned nice place. Mostly. Except for my sixth-grade teacher. I still owe him.

#26 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2003, 07:36 PM:

I was born in Oklahoma and lived there (with the exceptions of 2 years in KS and 1 in TX) until 1984. Since then I've been back at least 2/year. So I think I'm quite well qualified to say, yes, it's a nice polite place, but that has nothing to do with it being armed, but rather more complex social factors. And, of course, it helps to be white.


#27 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2003, 08:39 PM:

Sixth grade was the year they integrated the public schools in Enid, Oklahoma. I could tell you stories.

Of course, so could people from Boston.

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