“Security Theatre”

“There must be a reason the laptop is singled out” at airport security, wrote Matt Richtel , a technology reporter for The New York Times.  But in trying to find our what that reason might be, he ran into a bewildering array of evasions and obfuscations.

A spokesman for the T.S.A. couldn’t explain it because he “didn’t want to betray any secrets.”  No help there, but Richtel went on to explore possible explanations.  Could battery compartments be used to hide homemade bombs?  Yet, he reasoned, some netbooks and ultrabooks have similar compartments, and they don’t require separate screening.

Maybe, though, the circuitry of a laptop could be replaced with a device to jam an airplane’s controls.  Yet that could be done just as easily with phones or game players, which also do not have to be separately screened.

A blog site for the T.S.A. offered this explanation for having travelers remove laptop from their carryon bags:  “screeners can get a better look at them and see more easily into the rest of the bag.”  But usually screeners do not actually look into the bags, so that “explanation” explains nothing.

Richtel commented that “a security expert who asked that he not be identified . . . said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them.  ‘Security theater,’ he called it.” (See, “The Mystery of the Flying Laptop.”)

Bruce Schneier, the security chief for British Telecom and a long-time security expert on the psychology of security, agrees:  “It’s all nonsense.”  There just is no reason that has to do with actual security.

So, then, what are the irrational reasons?

One is to be found in the old adage, ‘better safe than sorry.’  Excessive caution feels reassuring and prudent.  Along those lines, undoing a safety rule can feel dangerous.  What if the rule is repealed, so this worried thinking goes, but then someone does actually figure out a way to slip a bomb into a laptop?

No doubt this is how rules and regulations proliferate.  If something goes wrong, our tendency is to create new laws and procedures to correct the old ones.  Rarely will a reform movement lead to a rethinking of all the rules.

True enough, but I think the stronger reason is that incentives to make life pleasanter are weak.  To be sure, eliminating unnecessary procedures would improve life for countless thousands of travelers not to mention baggage screeners.  But whoever got rewarded for making life easier?  We’d rather feel safe.

We don’t expect things to be simplified and made easier.  We care more about security and safety.  Driven largely by anxiety and fear, we recoil not just from the physical threat of bombs but also from the risk of being blamed for what goes wrong.  We don’t want to feel guilty.  We don’t want to be singled out.

So we dutifully line up and submit to safety procedures, regardless of how arbitrary and nonsensical they may be.  That is, until, armed with the safety of numbers, the crowd rebels.