The Exploding Snow Globe

November 18th, 2010 by Barrett Lyon
If the TSA is really about protecting the public from another 9/11, then why are there so many obviously gaping holes in the way they perform their jobs? For example, the contrast of no security with general aviation and the illusion of security in commercial airports. Well, what about other painful items that are overlooked that are so egregious and obvious that it makes all the rest of the TSA’s efforts moot?

Flying back from Washtingon DC, a coworker traveling with me bought a snow globe for his daughter. He bought it at a store right next to the security line, and when he went through security the TSA agent promptly told him that a snow globe was not allowed to accompany him. I spoke up, “you’ve got to be kidding!?”. The agent replied, “You don’t know what’s inside there!” To me it’s pretty obvious, it’s water and sprinkles. My response, “Well you don’t know what’s inside a woman’s breast implants do you? What if they were packed with C4 rather than saline? If you’re going to kill yourself, you may as well surgically implant explosives in your own body. And how are you going to stop that?”

His response summarized the TSA, “Well nothing is perfect, we can’t stop everything.” My thinking, well if you can’t even do a midly good job, the opportunity cost of what the TSA is doing is simply not worth it.

Now as outragious as exploding breast implants sound, surgically implanting explosives in one’s body is really not far-off of an option to a terrorist. It’s actually more of a threat than a snow globe and there’s absolutely nothing the TSA can do about it. If someone surgically implanted a bomb in their body, the TSA cannot use intrusive pat-downs, body scanners, or x-ray devices to detect it.

Cryptographer Bruce Schneier is a big opponent of the TSA and originally coined the phrase “security theater” to describe the TSA’s antics. He’s also very clear in his thinking that, “security is only as strong as the weakest link”. Thus, if there are a myriad weak links in the TSA’s security posture, then basically there is no real benefit in spending the billions of dollars required to do just the basics.

Back to the snow globe: The day my coworker lost his snow globe, I was heckling a TSA agent with an aircraft transceiver radio in my backpack. I bought it as a backup to my own aircraft and I happen to have it in my backpack. It’s capable of talking directly to air traffic control and to other pilots during my flights. Sitting on the flight I let my mind wander and I thought, “wow I could turn on my radio and announce to the air traffic control that we have a hostage situation and that the plane is about to be under control of terrorists.” Something like,


Handheld UHF/VHF radio

Given the right conditions, someone might hear it on the low powered handheld. It might be more efficient to mess with the pilots rather than ATC and just imitate air traffic control. One could tell the pilots that there was an aircraft directly ahead and to drop 5,000 feet or other whacky things. To a really accomplished mind (with a lot of funding), radio communication could be pretty dangerous.

Granted, ATC have radios that will out power a tiny handheld, yet it could be used to overpower the air traffic control’s responses. Yet, taking off your shoes and having body scans don’t really address creativity and out of the box thinking.

Let’s take this entire radio concept and blow it up to absurdity. Let’s say that terrorists take high powered radios and mount them inside of vans. Let’s say they take ten of these vans and go out near the transmission range of 10 air traffic control regions in the United States. Let’s say they learn the FAA’s air traffic control radio lingo and they start directing aircraft to fly into other aircraft.

Now, I doubt any airplanes will fly into each other, however, it puts the trust of the entire US air traffic control system into question. Airports may have to shut down temporally. If it were done during Christmas travel, it would cause havoc for the holiday commuters and possibly places lives at risk.

The entire air communications systems between pilots and control is based off a system developed in the 1930′s and is basically high powered walkie-talkies. There’s no way for a pilot to know if he or she is communicating to a real air traffic source or not and visa versa. Unauthenticated communications is a pretty creepy problem and it’s not going to be fixed by the TSA groping children at security lines.

Now is any of this really feasible? Probably not. Yet, if someone wrote about 9/11 on 9/10 it might have sounded pretty unfeasible as well. Commercial pilots do have other communications methods to talk back to tower, but some asshole with a radio could make a lot of stress for a lot of people. There are times where pilots depend on very quick and short responses from ATC to maneuver properly and at times when there are no disruptions, even basic flight is difficult — especially during IFR conditions.

Now, on to my real point: Is society better because of the TSA’s policies? Does it improve security for an American citizen to throw away his snow globe? I really doubt it. We are submitting ourselves to what amounts to groping, reduced privacy, and reduced freedoms in the airports because we think there is a benefit to it. These TSA security tactics do little to nothing to prevent a creative mind from doing something awful. The TSA cannot stop bad things from happening but they can treat good people as criminals.

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