Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Seven Words the DHS Can't Hear

I've just written a new editorial for Sigma, the science fiction think tank founded by Arlan Andrews which provides pro bono futurism consulting for the Federal government and appropriate NGOs.  This means that my previous editorial will fade into the gray recesses of the Intertubes.  So I thought I'd present it one more time here.  After the mandatory italicized background:

This was written for and aimed at the Department of Homeland Security.  And here are the seven words that nobody in the DHS can hear:  Stop making us take off our shoes.  I know, because I've said it to the faces of many honest DHS bureaucrats and I have seen the glazed look overcome them that says, "His mouth is moving and yet nothing is coming out."

Nevertheless, I honestly believe that this ritual humiliation (which travelers through Israeli airports don't have to submit to, incidentally) is unnecessary and that the decision-makers in DHS can someday be convinced to give it up.

The following editorial is my first but surely not last attempt to make this happen.


 Fresh Flowers and Small Robots:
The Open-Security Airport of 2010

by Michael Swanwick

Like most Americans regularly subjected to the discomforts and indignities of airport security, I have concluded that it is almost all “security theater.”  That is, a series of empty gestures meant to reassure travelers that it is safe to board an airplane.  Conceivably it may also help deter would-be terrorists.  Certainly it has captured none – or we would surely have been told.
Why not exchange this Theater of Misery, then, for a Theater of Optimism?  Something equally reassuring, potentially more effective, and not at all oppressive. It could be done with minimal preparation, modest cost, and no new technology.  I propose a voluntary pilot program of one small airport, where security is so easy to pass through that it is once again possible for families to meet a traveling relative as he or she gets off the jetliner.
Imagine this happy airport of the very near future:
Gone are the TSA employees who currently check boarding passes to make certain that only passengers enter the waiting areas.  They’ve been replaced by or retrained as concierges – politely and efficiently taking coats and carry-on and placing them on the conveyor belts for the X-ray machines.  They also answer questions about schedules and airport facilities, which is not technically the job of security, but makes life more pleasant for everybody.  There are no lines for the metal detectors, because their numbers have been doubled or tripled.  Passengers now stroll through casually, with their dignities and tempers intact.
Most amazingly, nobody takes their shoes off.  The possibility of shoe bombs is still very real.  But so is the possibility of an obsidian knife or a ceramic gun strapped to a passenger’s body – and only a select few are checked for those.  However, no one thinks for an instant that they are less safe than before.  This is because small robots trundle up and down the lines, projecting a laser grid over their shoes, and occasionally stopping to inhale a sudden whoosh of air.  These robots are not at all threatening – their housing has been designed by Industrial Light and Magic, the same people who created R2D2 for George Lukas’s Star Wars movies – but they are reassuringly high-tech.  They are clearly sampling the air for trace chemicals associated with explosives.
It is not necessary that the robots actually function as bomb sniffers.  (Though I’m sure the defense industry would be happy to design such devices.)  All that is needed is that they reassure our friends and unnerve our foes.  The DHS is widely believed to possess sinister technology and worse intentions.  It is time to recognize this as being not a weakness but an advantage. 

In this scenario the DHS has embraced its evil image and put it to work.  Cheap silvered plastic bubbles, of the sort used to hide surveillance cameras in casinos, are bolted to the walls.  Electric cables run to them, painted the same color as the wall, obviously to camouflage them.  Sconces directly below the bubbles hold ceramic vases containing fresh-cut flowers.  The flowers draw the eye right to the bubbles, while looking like an attempt to disguise their presence.  Passengers feel safer.  Evildoers assume the worst.

Similar examples of benign deceit come and go, as the DHS fine-tunes public awareness of its presence.  Trip-beams cause green lights to flash reassuringly as a traveler passes.  Stepping on a pressure plate triggers a musical “all-clear” note.  Decorative kinetic sculpture moves gracefully in time with foot traffic.

Passengers chosen for random security checks no longer resent this necessity.  They are taken to a pleasant and comfortable room where, after their interview, they are given complimentary chits for food and drink on their airliners.  At random intervals, two or three times a day, a bell rings and a cheerful voice announces over the intercom that another lucky passenger being checked has just received a hundred-dollar credit for the duty-free shops.  Light applause fills the airport.
In such an environment, a nervous or fearful individual stands out more clearly than is the case today.

All this is done with existing technology.  (The wall-bubbles are sometimes used to field-test a variety of passive detectors, but that is just a side benefit.)  The added cost is moderate, and the bulk of it – particularly the added space required to make the security process comfortably uncrowded – is absorbed by the airport itself.  It is considered a small price to pay for a great deal of positive publicity.

Best of all, since the security process has been simplified and sped up, it is no longer necessary to keep non-passengers out of the waiting areas.  Once again, the weary traveler can come up the ramp from the plane to find his or her family waiting with smiles and open arms.

In their hurry to get home, not one in ten passengers notes the plaque reading, “This Facility Meets DHS Open Security Standards.”  Nor do they notice the program’s certification that the airport is Security Hardened and Family Safe.  They only know that they feel safer and more at ease than any commercial air traveler has since the Twentieth Century.

The DHS has won one small, quiet victory in the War on Terror.

And on a lighter note . . .

I opened a card yesterday and froze in my tracks.  Then I showed it Marianne.  As one, we both sang:  "We've got a win-ner!"

Yes, it looks like the Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition has been won by a dark horse!  I don't think even the Clutes can top this one.  But it's not Christmas yet, so the judges' minds are still open.  Remember:  It ain't over 'til the angels sing!

But I don't see how anybody's going to be able to top this one.



gg said...

I'd like to see everyone have to pass all of their clothing through a scanner. What could be safer than a bunch of naked people walking through metal detectors?

Andrew said...

Michael, I love your fiction, but please don't quit your job for a role as a security consultant. "Evildoers assume the worst" is a line that works on the page in a fairytale way, but real evildoers are not the bumbling idiots that will be fooled by this. They do their research.

I agree completely that much of the DHS processes are security theater, and could be vastly improved, but are you actually promoting an explicit decrease in real security and the promotion of (even more) lies?

Your system would be implemented for all of three seconds before someone in DHS told a friend who told a friend who wrote a blog post and everyone would know it was a sham, and actually feel less safe (and rightly so, since they would be).

Cute, but not well thought out if your stated intent is serious.

Michael Swanwick said...

Andrew, I'll concede that the line is unintentional condescending toward my intended audience -- I'm still teaching myself how to write nonfiction -- and that that I'm far, far from being qualified to work as a security consultant. But not that what I propose would actually reduce security. Anything that could pass through a metal detector inside a shoe could do so inside a pocket, or strapped to a calf.

I admire the calm and reasonable tone of your criticism, incidentally.

Ed, ironically enough, scanners currently exist which can see everything hidden under clothing, most emphatically including naked bodies. The only reason they're not being used right now is that TSA is acutely aware of how people would react.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Here in Australia they've just decided to stop confiscating nail scissors and other Grooming Devices of Mass Destruction.

Nice to see.

(I do wish Blogger would let me edit my typos, rather than deleting and replacing.)

JJM said...

Ummm ... what makes you think the full-body scanners are not being used? Some airports have indeed installed them ... can't remember now which ones, but I have seen a list at one point. And, of course, given the averted Christmas Bomb Affair, you can bet they'll be proliferating.