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Expert Calls Metro Bag Search Plan 'Security Theater'

Security specialist Bruce Schneier offered biting criticism of the Metro's new bag searching policy today in a chat with readers. He summed up the terror-fighting strategy as a waste of resources that would likely make residents less safe overall.

Here are some highlights:

Boston: ... Do people really think this is going to make us safer?

Bruce Schneier: Of course it's not going to make anyone safer.

This kind of thing is what I call security theater against a movie-plot threat.

A movie-plot threat is an overly specific plot or tactic. The problem with defending against them is that it only makes sense if you've guessed the plot correctly. If we spend millions on these random Metro searches and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, or crowded movie theaters, or restaurants, or churches, or buses, or restaurants, or any of the other zillions of places where people congregate together, then we've wasted our money. But a "movie-plot threat" is a vivid story in our minds, and we respond to vivid stories. ...

Southern Maryland: ... This would seem to invite the screeners to select passengers based on personal prejudices or fears. I can easily imagine them targeting black men, or men who look Middle Eastern.

Bruce Schneier: This is certainly a worry; police officers will almost certainly stop people who "look suspicious," whatever that means. And, of course, terrorists will use that to their advantage by looking and dressing and acting like they fit in. ...

Baltimore: ... Everybody else see this policy for the sham it is -- why can't Metro?

Bruce Schneier: Actually, you're asking a very profound question. The reason Metro doesn't see this as a sham is that they're too close to the threat.

The threat is terrorism, and smart solutions reduce the threat overall. Dumb solutions move the threat around -- from the Metro to busses, from DC to another city -- and so on. But Metro officials have a different view; to them, the threat is terrorism on the Metro. If they institute this program and the terrorists go bomb something else, it's a win for them. But for all of us, it's a waste of money.

Bethesda, Md.: ... If I enter a metro station and refuse a search, then exit and return 1 minute later (say after 5 people have passed through the gates), will I be stopped again? ...

Bruce Schneier: I don't know. Certainly a smart terrorist will just take a cab to another station.

Washington, D.C.: Metro points to McWade v. Kelly - the New York City case - as proof of the program's legality. But does that case really create binding precedent for courts in DC, Maryland, and Virginia? Isn't the Metro program open for challenge?

Bruce Schneier: The New York case notwithstanding, there is definitely a court challenge in this case.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Are there other means of detecting bombs, such as bomb sniffing dogs, that could be implemented as another means to assist in preventing bombs from entering transit stations?

Bruce Schneier: Sure. You could add dogs, x-ray machines, metal detectors, explosive trace detectors -- all sorts of things. That's not the issue; the issue is "why bother?" Why is this particular movie-plot threat worth of all these resources and attention, and all the other millions of possible threats not? ...

Washington, D.C.:
... What is the new threat that requires searches on Metro?

Bruce Schneier: Perhaps someone needs to look tough on terrorism in order to secure a promotion.

I don't mean this as a joke. "Threat" needs to be understood from the point of view of the person who is implementing this program. There are threats to the general population, threats to the Metro ridership, threats to the Metro employees, and threats to that particular person. The decision to implement this program is based on all of those threats.

Whenever you see a security trade-off that doesn't make sense, try to understand it from the point of view of the person making the trade-off. It will make sense that way.

Washington, D.C.:
Metro doesn't have enough security personnel to deal with the real threats it has: [assault, aggressive teenagers, harassment, crime]. ... Now they want to divert personnel to fight theoretical terrorists.

Bruce Schneier:
This is another important point. Not only are there different terrorist threats, there are different threats in general. When the police divert resources from crime to terrorism, the result is an increased threat of crime. It's probable that people will be less safe overall because of this. ...

Pittsburgh:
I lived in D.C. and I think it's a good idea to do this. It is better safe than sorry, and everyone would want this if something bad happens to us like 9/11.

Bruce Schneier:
You certainly don't believe this. If you did, you'd never leave your home. Better safe than sorry, after all. You'd never let anyone into your home; better safe than sorry. You'd never do anything.

The choice is not between safe or sorry. This security measure won't make you safe. And not doing it won't necessarily make you sorry. (The Metro hasn't done it since the system opened in 1976, and no one is sorry.) The choice is the standard security trade-off: are the security benefits worth the cost? And by any reasonable measure, they're not.

Silver Spring, Md.:
... If terrorists were going to set off a bomb in the Metro, why haven't they done it already? ...

Bruce Schneier:
Agreed. It seems unlikely that a would-be terrorist would say something like: "Wow, they're randomly searching bags in the Metro. I will abandon my terrorist plans and go get a real job instead." Far more likely he will make a minor change in his tactic and go about his evil business.

By Mike McPhate  |  October 31, 2008; 2:09 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Safety  
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Comments

Too bad Metro management probably didn't (or isn't going to) pay attention to this discussion or anything Mr. Schneier had to say.

Posted by: zizzy | October 31, 2008 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Why would Metro listen to experts like Schneier regarding security? Metro clearly isn't interested in following best practices. Why else would they open the train doors in the middle of the tunnel instead of when the train is at the platform? Why else would they open the doors on the wrong side of the train? Why else would they think that 1 shuttle bus can carry as many passengers as the rail line?

Metro is run by 100% incompetent boobs, and this idiotic policy is just one is a long tradition of Metro's mismanagement of resources. Why else is Metro so expensive for such substandard service?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 31, 2008 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Unanswered questions - anyone know?

* Does this bag inspection apply to bus systems such as CUE, DASH, Ride-On, Fairfax Connector, etc? Even if these buses sitting at the bus bays at Metro stations?

* If the bag inspection causes you to miss the last Metrorail train of the night or the last bus of the evening or rush hour, will Metro reimburse you for cab expenses? To some far out suburban locations, this can easily $20-40 or more, which is not small change. My guess is not, given Metro's sometimes bad customer service. Or better yet, if you miss the last running bus or train during an ice storm or other severe weather due to complying with a bag inspection (I would not put it pass Metro given some of their stupidity in the past), and have to pay to stay in a hotel overnight or longer? This would make a good civil lawsuit for damages against Metro.

* If an illegal immigrant is arrested by having illegal materials during a bag inspection, could he/she be deported? It would be good if the program follow the lead of Prince William County on this, in my personal opinion.

Posted by: commute201 | November 1, 2008 6:37 AM | Report abuse

Fire Catoe! He's proven himself to be incomeptent. Out him.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | November 1, 2008 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps a better measure would be to search all vehicles crossing the line into the District. A person with a backpack can't do nearly the damage a vehicle loaded with explosives can. The goons are the problem. They have a huge appetite for making themselves indispensable, no regard for civil liberties, and usually fewer brains. Next we will see arrests and worse as the irate public resists this illegal action. In London they even shoot innocent riders. Safe ride!

Posted by: iquitos | November 2, 2008 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Stop complaining about the searches!

This isn't the first time that you are subjected to your bag being searched...just look at the Smithsonian. Your bag is searched prior to entry. YOu have the right to refuse and thus can't enter the museum.. I don't see people complaining about that.

SO STOP COMPLAINING! Sometimes you have to give up a little liberty to create a more free and safe society! If you were so concerned about them searching you, then you have something to hide!

Posted by: sonicforrest | November 2, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

People didn't complain? Really? I did. Maybe people didn't complain but these things keep escalating. When is the breaking point? I suppose you won't complain until they come and get you, but by then it will be too late.

Posted by: dkf747 | November 2, 2008 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Stop complaining? To choose not to be bag searched at the museum or an amusement park, those activities are optional. Metorail and Metrobus are used by many to get to many necessary daily activities including commuting to and from work or for some grocery shopping or doctor's visits. To explain to the boss you missed your Metrobus, not everyone gets to work on Metrorail, because of a bag search and you had to wait 30 minutes or longer for the next one does not always fly. Who believes these searches only take 15 seconds? Sadly for some, missing a bus could cause loss of job or not having a life sustaining medical treatment.

Posted by: commute201 | November 3, 2008 4:40 AM | Report abuse

Stop complaining? To choose not to be bag searched at the museum or an amusement park, those activities are optional. Metorail and Metrobus are used by many to get to many necessary daily activities including commuting to and from work or for some grocery shopping or doctor's visits. To explain to the boss you missed your Metrobus, not everyone gets to work on Metrorail, because of a bag search and you had to wait 30 minutes or longer for the next one does not always fly. A $20 cab fare can be a budget buster for some. Who believes these searches only take 15 seconds? Sadly for some, missing a bus could cause loss of job or not having a life sustaining medical treatment.

Posted by: commute201 | November 3, 2008 4:40 AM | Report abuse

"Sometimes you have to give up a little liberty to create a more free and safe society! If you were so concerned about them searching you, then you have something to hide!"

No, I have something to protect and it's called my rights as provided by the Constitution of the United States of America.

The Fourth Amendment states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

There is a very big difference between being searched at a museum, ballgame, or concert and being searched while doing normal every day activities. For one, everyone is searched at those other activities. I probably attend those types of events once every month (at the most). Metro I use every day, multiple times a day to get to and from work, do grocery shopping, travel to meet friends, run errands, etc. I refuse to give up my rights AND be majorly inconvienced for ABSOLUTELY NO EXTRA protection.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety" --Benjamin Franklin

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | November 3, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

You may want to check out this article before consenting to a bag search, especially if you bought chocolate for your significant other or just went to the organic foods store, and who know what else. Because of false positives on drug tests during bag screenings, people have been arrested on legit items that later in court have been cleared. Who wants to go through this trouble. If need, to keep my record clean as a law abiding citizen, I will take a taxi to the next stop, rather than consent to a search and risk false arrest.

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-11-03-drugkits_N.htm

Posted by: commute201 | November 6, 2008 4:40 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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