Speaking to the Associated Press at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble argued that better intelligence and information sharing is required, rather than wide-scale body scanning technology.
I think he is absolutely right. We throw money at technology and award contracts to giant government contractors on systems that will do little more than spook the general public while providing some illusion of security. Meanwhile, we have sparse data on who is actually doing the traveling. Detroit is simply the latest example of paying attention to the wrong thing… an inter-departmental database check would have prevented the incident. It also might have flagged many of the terrorists involved in 9/11 before they boarded their flights.
Last year the TSA in the US (which has not had a leader for 14 months and counting) let an entire industry die – the Trusted Traveler industry – rather than help foster its growth. How big a deal was that? Well, a quarter-million people had provided more detailed information about themselves than is actually known about the airline employees moving bags under your airplane, so you tell me. Had the industry survived, that number would likely have been in the millions within a couple of years.
Knowing who a traveler is – and what disparate databases show about their activities and associations – is far more valuable than the cat-and-mouse game played at the screening stations, which is mostly theater and will again be bypassed. First it was box cutters, then exploding shoes, then came the ‘liquids” scare, and most recently, exploding underwear. What’s next, TSA-issued one-piece jumpsuits and changing rooms? (“…Remember, all clothing, including undergarments, must be checked or you will not be allowed to board the aircraft…”).
None of this is meant to knock the hard-working and decidedly overstressed ‘blue shirts’ on the front lines. Imagine walking in their shoes for a few moments and the thankless, unpleasant task they face on a daily basis becomes apparent. Are a few clueless? Sure, but most are hard-working folks trying to earn a living while enduring countless under-breath comments and eye-darts.
What we need is a new mindset in how we think about foiling the tactic that is terrorism. After all, Wellness is to the Emergency Room as Information is to the Security Checkpoint. In a word: Prevention. This doesn’t eliminate the need for the ER — or the Checkpoint — but certainly helps to minimize the heroic (and uber-expensive) efforts at the last line of defense. Yet we simply do not spend the time or money building – and linking – the systems we already have. The interest isn’t there. Nearly a decade back I was on the board of a company with leading-edge data mining technology considered the best in the world at the time. This company sold tens of millions of dollars worth of software to many if not most of the Fortune 500 and their global counterparts. We contacted the FBI and offered to give it to them for free after 9/11, no strings attached. Also said we would help them integrate it all, gratis. After a few months, we gave up calling back.
In the end, it is a mentality, and it permeates our Congressional psyche. We want the big, expensive toys – the B2 bombers, the drones, the 70-mph tanks – but then we end up with nasty low-tech attacks like zodiacs ramming destroyers, vans with fertilizer, knife-wielding hijackers, exploding garments (and undergarments!), and IED’s. Even in the information game, our strategy seems to be ‘go big or go home’. Projects like Carnivore/Raptor/Echelon are supersize-ticket items that result in amazing data velocity and gobs of ‘analysts’ (in all governments, assets = power). No doubt these programs have had their wins (as have bombers, drones and tanks) but in the 21st century they are not enough. Nor is the silo ethos that doggedly persists amongst the alphabet agencies. Creating the DHS (One Ring To Rule Them All, I guess) has done little to combat that.
So I applaud Interpol’s Noble on having the chutzpah to even suggest the system is getting it wrong as the ‘Scan Baby Scan!’ battle-cry marches forth. We need more of that. Wonder how long he will keep his current job. I hear there’s an opening at the TSA.