Air travel security data? TSA has no idea

by Lisa Simeone on February 8, 2013

Database by Iwan Gabovitch
The Salt Lake Tribune has done a comprehensive, detailed analysis of TSA data, such as it is, and has concluded that . . . there isn’t much.

Over two years ago, the Salt Lake Tribune made a FOIA request that the TSA release data on the number and type of prohibited items confiscated at checkpoints — you know, those items the TSA is always bragging about in its weekly show-and-tells?

The TSA has finally released the data (yes, it took them two years). And get this — instead of releasing it in electronic form, which the SLT requested, and which, given the fact that we live in the modern world would make it easier to collate and comprehend, the TSA released reams of paper print-outs. So the SLT had to input the data into a computer by hand in order to analyze it.

There’s that crack agency for you, always on the cutting edge!

What the SLT found was that the TSA has, in fact, no idea what it’s doing. This isn’t opinion speaking; this is the data speaking.

The hit-and-miss data show TSA does not know how many total prohibited items are surrendered, so it cannot accurately track rates of such activity nationwide or at specific airports.

The TSA, apparently, doesn’t even know how to count:

At its creation, TSA decided, in its own words, to track surrendered items in a database “as a tool through which TSA captures and analyzes daily operational information to achieve performance goals.”

The record for items surrendered came in 2005, when the agency recorded collecting 15.7 million potential weapons nationwide. That amounts to one for every 46 passengers that year — enough to provide a banned item to everyone on a fleet of nearly 38,000 full Boeing 747s.

But in 2010, the last year for which TSA data were released, records show TSA collected a mere 109,270 banned items — a 99 percent decrease from five years earlier and a record low. That amounts to one item for about every 6,700 passengers.

The vast difference comes not from a dramatic increase in travelers leaving banned items at home but mostly from changes in what TSA counted.

Ah, but surely there’s method to the madness of the crafty TSA. Well, kinda: for instance, for a while there, they didn’t count guns.

That’s right. Guns.

For example, in 2005, TSA was in the middle of a three-year period — from July 26, 2004, to June 29, 2007 — when it did not include firearms in its data. The agency confirmed that it left firearms out of the count during this period, but it did not say why. [TSA spokesowoman] Dankers said in an interview that she also had no explanation.

That’s funny, because the TSA makes a big deal these days of telling us how many guns they confiscate at checkpoints. (Never mind the pesky fact that in all the years before the Reign of Molestation they were also finding guns, because guns are — er — metal, and they’re detected by — believe it or not — metal detectors.)

Meanwhile, other Big Scary Terroristy Items may or may not have been counted as well:

An even bigger reason for variations in the data is that, beginning in 2008, TSA discontinued counting most types of banned items — including sharp objects, knives and blades, tools, ammunition and gunpowder, replica weapons, dangerous objects, clubs, bats and bludgeons, box cutters, and lighters.

“It became very labor intensive to document these items,” Dankers said. “Over the course of time, not every prohibited item was logged for the sake of efficiency. … TSA screens between 1.7 [million] and 1.8 million people per day. We’re dealing with large numbers of people at 450 federalized airports nationwide.”

TSA decided it made sense to track only the “most significant items,” she said, including guns, explosives, fireworks, and “flammables/irritants.”

Oh, you mean like cupcakes? And purses? And beverages? And belt buckles? And watches and breast prostheses and insulin pumps? And inert grenades?

I know it’s a radical notion to quote actual people who actually study actual security, but here ya go:

“If TSA is continually changing the parameters of how they test, truly they have no idea of how they are doing,” said Douglas Laird, head of an aviation-security consulting firm. He is the former security director of Northwest Airlines and a former Secret Service agent.

“It says that they’re very sloppy about figuring out if what they’re doing is any good,” said Bruce Schneier, a security-technology consultant and author.

Laird, the former security director for Northwest Airlines, says it shows TSA keeps changing its mind about what is important to track, and that makes it difficult to measure progress.

Both experts say that even if the data were more consistently collected, that information still might not be a great way to measure air-travel security.

“Think about it this way: The goal of the TSA is to prevent terrorist plots on airplanes. The way to do that is to stop terrorists with viable plots from getting on airplanes. They can’t do that; it’s impossible,” Schneier said. “There’s no comprehensive lists of terrorists, and there’s no comprehensive list of terrorist plots.”

So, he added, “Instead, they invent another goal and hope it’s close to the real goal. The new goal is to prevent a list of banned items from getting on airplanes . . . Even if they ban 100 percent of guns and bombs, is there any evidence that’s a worthwhile goal? I have no idea and neither do they.”

And the stuff that is “surrendered” confiscated? Most if not all of it is harmless:

Laird said “99.9999″ percent of what is surrendered at airports is not from terrorists “but from people who forgot what was in their luggage” and likely doesn’t say much about discouraging terrorists.

But that’s just common sense, and we can’t allow that now, can we?

Then we have — again — the constantly repeated and constantly easily refuted claim that because there haven’t been any terrorist attacks since 9/11 that means that TSA security is working. Well, since I’ve been carrying a special Anti-Elephant Rock in my pocket, I haven’t been attacked by elephants. Therefore, my special rock works! The logic of a TSA lover.

For the umpteenth time, in all the years before 9/11, after 9/11, and even on 9/11 itself, planes weren’t being blown out of the sky left and right.

If The Terrorists Are Everywhere, then why weren’t planes dropping out of the sky left and right in all the years when the TSA wasn’t scanning your body, sticking its fingers in your crotch, and confiscating your dangerous shampoo?

I’m still waiting for TSA apologists to answer that question. Yet they never do.

We weren’t being scanned and groped en masse until October 30, 2010. Where were all the bombs before then? Where were all the planes being blown out of the sky?

Hello? Anyone?

(Photo: Iwan Grabovitch/Flickr Creative Commons)

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