Does Airport Security Actually Prove Useful? Possibly (in a twisted way).

I read Bruce Schneier's work, alot. I especially savor his insights on the psychology surrounding security systems and how humans interpret and react to threats both big and small, and respond by building security systems to protect us; how we misjudge and overreact to the rare and extreme threats while ignoring the more common yet mundane threats.

One commonly cited example of this is the post-9/11 response to terrorism and the implementation of airport security which is not actually making us safer. The TSA security procedures, "backscatter" X-Ray machines, and knee-jerk reactions to specific threats (such as a single instance of a weapon hidden in a shoe) that create new hassles for legitimate passengers.

But, I've also been reading Bruce's latest book, Liars and Outliers, where he explains how the human species grew intelligence to compete against primarily other humans, and learned to place self-interests aside (for the most part) in order to cooperate with the interests of the group. This requires trust in one another, and at varying group sizes (starting small, and eventually growing larger and larger) requires social pressures to keep the defectors (those favoring the self-interest over the group-interest) to a tolerable level.

These social pressures come in various forms and work at various group sizes. As our society and group-sizes have grown larger and larger over the centuries, we have developed different methods of influencing human behavior to cooperate with one another and forgo the self-interest. And each time our group-size gets larger, our definition of "trust" takes on new meaning. In small group sizes, we trust the intentions of the individual; we know them at a more personal level. These are the Moral and Reputational pressures. As group sizes get larger, we become increasingly disconnected from the others whom we must place trust in; we are forced to trust their actions will be cooperative in the group-interest because we don't know their intentions. This is where Institutional pressures and Security Systems come into play.

To quote from 'Liars and Outliers':

The most important difference among these four categories is the scale at which they operate.

  • Moral pressure works best in small groups. Yes, our morals can affect our interactions with strangers on the other side of the planet, but in general, they work best with people we know well.
  • Reputational pressure works well in small- and medium-sized groups. If we're not at least somewhat familiar with other people, we're not going to be able to know their reputations. And the better we know them, the more accurately we will know their reputations.
  • Institutional pressure works best in larger-sized groups. It often makes no sense in small groups; you're unlikely to call the police if your kid sister steals your bicycle, for example. It can scale to very large groups—even globally—but with difficulty.
  • Security systems can act as societal pressures at a variety of scales. They can be up close and personal, like a suit of armor. They can be global, like the systems to detect international money laundering. They can be anything in between.

Therefore, going back airport security, we cannot trust the large majority of society on a global scale using moral or reputational pressures. Institutional pressures become ineffective since they are enforced on a largely national basis, and terrorists are not deterred by such pressures. We are left reliant on security systems alone to base our "trust" of the aviation system.

But... could this "security theater" at airports actually be preventing the complete breakdown in trust in the aviation system, even if it proves woefully ineffective as an actual security mechanism? If the majority of society lost trust in aviation safety, would there be a mass-exodus of passengers? Would the airline industry completely crumble?

Perhaps our government's post-9/11 anti-terrorism actions, including the ineffective security systems and procedures instituted by the TSA, actually DO serve a purpose after all. They keep passengers re-assured that they are reasonably safe while flying; they pacify our human minds which over-exaggerate the true risk of terrorist attack on airplanes. I'm not justifying these measures as making us safer, just keeping the industry afloat by managing public "perceptions" of airline security.

This is just something I've been pondering...