A toddler is snatched by TSA officials from a weeping helpless mom in the middle of a busy airport and wisked away. Nobody helps. Nobody cares. A horror for any parent. But is this story true? Is our civilization so depraved and cowed that government can violate every aspect of decency and not be challenged or even noticed? I suspect many good citizens might agree with this – after all, isn’t government bad?
But of course “who watches the watchers”? There’s nothing like evidence to mess up a good story, and evidence we have. TSA released nine different camera shots of this distraught mom demonstrating *nothing* happened to her or her child. Nothing at all. Sorry folks – nothing to see here. Please remember to pick up your shoes and water bottles on the way out.
The fact that TSA had to release this video footage (long, detailed and from multiple camera angles to mitigate claims of “doctoring”) demonstrates how paranoia dominates, and also why the appearance of airport security for the masses is consequently just as ridiculous as the culture.
When I reviewed one of Schneier’s books on security and culture, I was struck by his observation that security is handled in an “overt” fashion… public searches, obvious cameras, announcements, shoe and lotion inspections, and so forth, to provide the appearance of serious involvement. But many of these “glamurity” measures, while juicing up the public, are not the ones that are likely to uncover the real bad guys – remember that a group of determined terrorists took over planes with box cutters – those little blades to cut open boxes – not AK47’s or switchblades or cologne. It was organization, intimidation and the element of surprise that allowed them succeed.
So the greatest concern regarding security in airports isn’t necessarily inspecting baby bottles (although on the basis that a bomb could be slipped into an unsuspecting child’s backpack or grandma’s purse, *everyone* must be searched – see, there’s that “organization” and “planning” stuff by determined bad guys again). Nope, the smart investment is in areas of automated photo recognition (do I know you?), examination of flight records (frequent flier? holiday to Tuva?), purchasing habits (cash or credit card? one-way or round-trip?) and ID (are you who you say you are and why are you traveling anyway?). This means realtime database analysis (a form of “business intelligence” pioneered by guys like Tandem to track your phone calls and credit cards – we *are* a consumer society after all) and lots of digital cameras. Oh, it also helps to have smart police who use their “instinct” to check out things – even though 9 times out of 10 there’s nothing there, there’s always that “tenth” time…
So what’s the moral of this little story? That bloggers lie to get hits? Well, I think that we already knew that. That some women are crazy? Given the road rage I see daily it’s not just women here, but there’s a thick percentage of “crazies” everywhere. Nope, the moral is pretty simple: You are being recorded, and not just from the cameras you see or the cameras the staff knows about, but also from cameras the staff and you *don’t* know about. This data is *collected* and *analyzed* and can persist and be pulled for review long after you’ve had that “claimed” incident with TSA or the janitor. To be fair, it’s unlikely to be reviewed – after all, millions of people pass through crowded airports and this means petabytes of uncompressed data that has to be stored somewhere so the persistence time is likely short. But since claims must be made quickly in a 24/7 Internet world, anyone who blogs that “TSA stole my lunch” yesterday on my business trip may actually face video surveillance footage that either shows the staff scarfing down fajitas or shows…nothing at all.
But why, you may ask, are there so many cameras? Aren’t one or two enough? Isn’t that a “waste” of taxpayer’s money. Not necessarily, because subverting security is something that insiders like staff are prone to, hence like banks the vast amount of data collection revolves around monitoring the workers with access – did she just go around the gate? did he just feel up the customers? did they steal from the luggage? and so forth.
But as a personal observation, I’d like to point out a common sense analysis that doesn’t rely on technology nor expertise, but only relies on an understanding of human nature. I felt the most unbelievable aspect of this woman’s blogged claim of TSA child abuse was that nobody in line at the airport inspection station noticed or said anything during this “incident”. Now seriously, I know this is a paranoid “fear culture” where “nobody helps nobody but himself” (to paraphrase a con man), but do people really think that the woman waiting behind this distressed mother or the businessman just ahead of her waiting on a laptop inspection or the grandparents three feet away are *not* going to notice something as unusual as an agent taking a toddler away from his weeping mom? That during an unfolding drama people waiting impatiently to get to a plane will not notice the delay, press in closer and begin to demand explanations?
This is why this woman’s posting was complete nonsense – it completely ignores that we are social creatures who always want to know what’s happening with others. We comment. We rant. We watch. We get upset. Just as a couple of chimps arguing over a banana will cause the rest of the troop to press in closer, people will get involved – especially if there is a child. Grandma will crowd in closer to learn what is going on, the businesswoman four feet away will express concern for the toddler, a twenty-something will ask to speak to another agent. It is human nature to meddle in the affairs of others – that’s what being social animals is all about.
America is full of problems we need to solve to avoid a distopian future, and misconduct by those with badges does occur and must be dealt with appropriately. But there are also lots of scammers, liars and jerks who feed off of the paranoia of our society and make it look a hell of a lot worse than it is. These bottom feeders destroy trust, blacken reputations and encourage cynicism. Instead of focusing our energy on solving real problems, we are instead distracted by idiots enamored with celebrity. We waste time. We waste energy. We lose as a society.
So while some might wish to dismiss this incident, I’d like to expand upon it as an object lesson in how going too far to aggrandize oneself can result in serious blowback. And I’d rather see a fame-obsessed woman trying to get a blog audience to raise her google adwords paycheck exposed as a liar and use this lesson to engage in a discussion of real security needs than see the converse – that in a crowded airport nobody would come to the aid or even question essentially the official kidnapping of a toddler. That so many people are still willing to believe the worst here despite evidence to the contrary says everything about trust in our democracy.