Was airport security really okay?

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05/29/2009
Maybe you've seen the story about the woman who faked her own kidnapping and grabbed her daughter and ran away to Florida, flying through the Philly airport by using the driver's license of her friend and coworker. Maybe you haven't. It's a tabloidy thing of no real consequence. But then I saw this story - a good one, in my opinion - where the Philly Inquirer wonders aloud whether this calls into question the validity of airport security. The TSA says, "nope. Not at all." I say, "well, not really, since any smart person knows that airport security is pretty fraudulent, anyway, and isn't really designed to keep a person off of an airplane, just a bomb or other weapon." For example:
Sweeten had a valid Pennsylvania driver's license with a photo that closely resembled her. "It was a real driver's license, so it had all the security features that a real driver's license has," FBI Special Agent J.J. Klaver said.
Which are, well, none, really. Right? It's just a picture and a name. All of the hologram stuff, etc., probably couldn't be faked by some random woman, but it could certainly be faked by a terrorist operation of some kind. But anyone who's ever used their brother's license to buy booze at the local 7-11 (not me - I don't have a brother, which was a real pain in ass at UVM, where it's virtually impossible to get alcohol without a valid ID) knows no one really looks at the picture. They look to make sure the card is real and that you didn't make it at Kinko's, but they don't really look at you, per se.
The 38-year-old Bucks County woman "was using a driver's license of somebody who looked like her, and the ticket matched the name on the license," Klaver said. "This country has decided that your driver's license is your primary form of ID," Klaver said. "Driver's license photos, to begin with, are not very good. Pull out your driver's license picture, and hold it up and look in the mirror. How much does it really look like you every day?"
Mine doesn't look anything like me right now since I'm in summertime no-beard mode and my license has me in full-beard. The TSA guys never even look at me, though. The clerks at the local supermarket are more scrutinous. That's probably because they think I'm using my brother's license and there's a real penalty for selling alcohol to a minor - what penalty is there for a TSA employee who lets through someone with a fake ID by mistake? I've never heard of one and no one's being penalized in this case. Think about that for a second. If a clerk at the grocery store sells me booze when I'm 19 and using my brother's license, the store gets a stiff fine. I think it's $500 or so here in Maine. Do you think the clerk can say, "oh, well, he was using a real license and looked a lot like the picture..."? Um, no. The liquor inspector doesn't care in the slightest. If that happens more than once or twice, you lose your license. But, the TSA lets through someone who is not the person she claims to be and this is the explanation:
TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said, "Our officers are trained to make sure that passengers' travel documents and government-issued IDs are legitimate." "They are looking for evidence of tampering" and "proper state markings on the ID. They do look at the photo," Davis said. "However, law enforcement tells us that the woman in question used the valid ID of a coworker with whom she shares a very strong resemblance." "If the photo bears a strong resemblance to the passenger, and all other markings appear to be legitimate, then the ID would not raise any red flags," Davis said.
Talk about covering your ass! There's nothing about being concerned that this happened, nothing about an officer being punished, nothing about making sure this never happens again. Just, well, "hey, we did our job, right?" What absolute crap. When I think about what the Israelis would say about this, I'm aghast. The Israelis are laughing at us. They are. They think we're idiots. Just think about this:
Sweeten paid cash at the US Airways ticket counter at the airport for two 4:15 p.m. tickets to Orlando. Airlines track passengers who pay cash or buy one-way fares as part of market research, but such behavior is not considered suspicious or reported to security. "You are allowed to pay cash for an airline ticket," Klaver said.
Who pays cash for an airline ticket? Who does that? Have you ever done that? What percentage of people buy airline tickets at the airport with cash? I bet it's less than .000001. No one does that. But that's not suspicious behavior? Of COURSE that's suspicious behavior. That's the definition of suspicious behavior - doing something that no one does! The Israelis talk all the time about profiling actions and behaviors and not profiling people. This woman drew no attention because she's a white woman traveling with a little kid. How cute! It's a mommy-daughter trip to Florida! But, seriously, who, employed in a security role, could watch someone pay cash for a same-day ticket to Florida and not provide a little extra scrutiny to what's going on? But the thing is the person who sold the ticket probably doesn't see themselves in a security role, even though they should. So, they don't care, it's not their job; there's no system in place to flag such actions on the part of passengers; and by the time the TSA screener sees the ticket, it's just a normal ticket, so why would they spend more time on it? This is the explanation we get:
"Whether she showed ID to buy an airline ticket, again, she had a driver's license that looked like her," Klaver said. "They don't ask for a second form of ID. We don't use biometrics - fingerprints, retinal scans. It would be prohibitively expensive. We use a driver's license." "The woman took steps to get away. She was successful at it," Klaver said. "Does this show some systemic weakness in our security process? That's an opinion I'm not going to offer."
Again, an appeal to technology and money, when they don't have anything to do with it. It's about people, systems, and training. I'm sorry, but just how much could those two women look alike? You're telling me if she had been flagged for the cash payment and somebody looked a little harder it wouldn't have slowed things down enough for someone to check if there was anything on the wire about a woman who'd maybe been abducted, probably with a picture attached? A better system would have solved the problem. It doesn't have anything to do with biometrics. There's plenty of technology in place, as evidenced by the quick way they figured out where Sweeten went and so captured her. However, there's no way you could get some kind of bomb or device on a plane if you're going through security. I'm convinced of that. So our system is designed to prevent one very specific thing from happening, but it's not designed to catch criminals flying around the country under assumed aliases, that's for sure. I'm not surprised by that. But maybe my lack of surprise is what should be surprising to me.