Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lock, Lock. Who’s There?

I am, I guess you could say, a small-government moderate. I don’t have a philosophical issue with the existence of government, or any special gripes about the legitimacy of state power, but rather I tend to think that everyone is better off when people play to their strong suits. And there are some things that governments are placed to do very well, and some that they are always going to be terrible at. And the more we remove from government the responsibility for things that it doesn’t do well, the better off we are overall. Because we can give those jobs to people who will do them well.

When I have a gripe with government, it’s when they do something poorly, yet won’t allow anyone else to do it, regardless of the fact that they could do it better. An illustration of this is the Transportation Security Administration and travel locks. If you’re going to fly, and you want to lock your luggage, you have to use TSA-approved locks for the job, because the TSA wants to be able to get into a suspicious bad without having to cut the lock off. As if someone who is going to try to smuggle a bomb or other dangerous item onto a plane via checked luggage is going to merrily use an approved lock. These locks are approved by the TSA, because the TSA has skeleton keys that will allow them to open the locks, and thus the bags, and then lock them back.

The problem now is that people other than the TSA can have access to these keys. In fact, you can print them out for yourself with a 3D printer and the right plastic. Not, it seems that you need to; the locks are said to not be very secure. And therein lies the issue. TSA spokesperson Mike England says, in response to the news that keys for its locks can be printed by the public:

“The reported ability to create keys for TSA-approved suitcase locks from a digital image does not create a threat to aviation security.”

“These consumer products are ‘peace of mind’ devices, not part of TSA’s aviation security regime.”

“Carried and checked bags are subject to the TSA’s electronic screening and manual inspection. In addition, the reported availability of keys to unauthorized persons causes no loss of physical security to bags while they are under TSA control. In fact, the vast majority of bags are not locked when checked in prior to flight.”
But here’s the point. If I’m using a TSA-approved lock, I’m clearly not worried about the security of a bag when the TSA has it - otherwise, I’d have taken steps to keep them out of it, too. The point behind a TSA-approved lock is to keep people out when the TSA doesn’t have control of the bag. It’s unclear how one can have “peace of mind,” when the only luggage locks available on the market that can be taken on aircraft are so publicly compromised. Now, to be sure, I understand that luggage locks are not the end all and be all. I think of them in much the same way I do the lock on my apartment door. Not really much of a deterrent to a determined thief, who could likely simply bash the door in, but enough to prompt a casual burglar to move on to the next unit, in the hope of finding an unlocked door. And given that, as Mr. England points out, that most suitcases aren’t locked anyway, that small amount of deterrence might help. Granted, it’s still easier to open an unlocked bag than to use the TSA’s keys, but the bar is simply that much lower.

A number of people online had expressed some dismay over Mr. England’s attitude towards the security of traveler’s belongings, which has charitably been described as “not our problem,” but in a sense, that’s kind of the point. The TSA doesn’t concern itself with the security regimes of travelers. And in that regard, it doesn’t have to care that it compromises those in the course of what it does concern itself with - namely telling everyone how terrorists would be blowing up planes left, right and center if they weren’t there to rifle through random people’s luggage.

The TSA’s chance of every stopping an airplane bombing through physically searching luggage are slim. Given what I understand of their processes, the device would have to show up on whatever scanners they use, but not be so obvious that it would be clear what it was without a physical search. And again, if I were going to put a bomb into a piece of checked luggage, I wouldn’t care about the locks on it. But I guess this is the way security theater works. One would hope however, that they’d aim for better than a one-star performance.

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