Airport controls

Airports are fascinating places. There, otherwise reasonable people accept to pose for nude photographs in front of total strangers (in the so-called full-body scanners). Of course, they are told that the pictures are destroyed on the spot, but numerous leaks of nudes have surfaced over the years.1 A film star even claimed he was asked to autograph a nude portrait of himself at Heathrow,2 although the airport denied this.3

Besides nude portraits, otherwise reasonable people accept to have their luggage searched - and commented - by “wholly untrained agents”, as a friend who’s a former security entrepreneur put it.4 It might not be much of a hassle if you conform to the idea of normality, but agents do not hesitate to humiliate and mock people who carry items they deem laughable.5 The list of behaviors otherwise reasonable people submit to when they are in an airport could go on (enhanced pat-down, anyone?) but we accept them in the name of “security”.

An eighty-year-old walking in front of hundreds of strangers barefoot and without a belt at airport control might be an unconfortable sight, but we have to endure it because it makes us safer, the thinking goes. The only problem is that it does not. None of the controls at airports make us safer. Don’t take my word for it, just look at the official assessments done by the United States government. In 2015, they sent 70 undercover agents to go through airport controls with bombs or knives. 67 went through undetected.6 Two years later, under a new leadership, another test was done at the airport of Minneapolis-St-Paul. This time, undercover agents were able to smuggle weapons 17 out of 18 times.7 I could not find mentions of such tests at European airports but have no reason to believe that the results would be any different.

Why do we accept invasive controls if they bring no security? It’s a typical case of correlation and causation.

At the beginning of commercial aviation, hijackings were a common occurrence. Armed men - occasionally women - would board a plane, threaten the crew, ask for a ransom, have the plane land somewhere safe and disappear. According to some of the news reports at the time, hijackings were even considered part of the fun of flying.8 American hijackers often landed the plane in Cuba, where the Castro government turned a blind eye on their crime. European ones usually landed at Algiers for the same reason.

In the early 1970s, a series of events pushed American and European governments to take action. In November 1971, an unidentified hijacker known as D.B. Cooper successfully extorted $200,000 ($1.2m in 2017 value) after he took control of a Boeing 727. With the money in hand, he jumped from the back of the plane with a parachute and was never caught.9 The case benefited from widespread coverage and probably shamed regulators into doing something. Just a few months later, in February 1972, a Palestinian group hijacked a Boeing 747 and asked a ransom of several million US dollars. With the money, they planned the Lod airport massacre of May of the same year, where 26 people were killed. That was the last straw.

Days after the Lod massacre, airplane pilots around the non-socialist world went on a 24-hour strike.10 An international convention had been signed in 1970 to make planejacking a crime,11 but it was not implemented. Things were about to change. Governments in the United States and Europe probably pressured safe heavens for hijackers into taking action. In August of 1972, for instance, five Black Panthers hijacked Delta flight 841 and landed at Algiers. They were arrested upon arrival. Castro’s Cuba, too, began to extradite hijackers.

Hijacking did not stop at once, but European governments showed their resolve. In 1976, Palestinians hijacked a plane and flew to Entebbe, Uganda. The government of Israel did not comply to their demands. Instead, Israeli forces stormed the airport and liberated most hostages. In 1977, the same situation occurred at Mogadishu after Palestinians hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181. Germans sent in their elite police unit and rescued the hostages. Not only did European governments refuse to tolerate hijackings, the Palestinian public began to see them in a bad light, too.12 Whereas hijackings were a low-cost, high-reward tactic in the 1960s, by the mid-1970s, it had become a very expensive one for criminals (who risked arrest on arrival) and terrorists (who risked a massive response from governments) alike.

As a result, hijackings plummeted. They became a means of seeking asylum13 or a high-visibility terror act. Despite several notable hijackings since the 1980s, not least 9/11, they have now disappeared from the world’s skies.

Unfortunately, the successful measures against hijacking, chiefly the criminalization and extradition of hijackers, were not tangible enough for regulators and politicians eager to be seen doing something. In 1973 in the United States and a few years later in Europe, they imposed that all passengers go through a metal detector and that luggage be scanned in an X-ray machine, despite the opposition of most airlines and pilots.14

A Wired article from 2013 nicely illustrate the history of airport controls and concludes that regulators “had no choice but to turn every airport into a miniature police state”.15 Few statements could be more false. A systematic analysis carried out by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, an institute of the University of Maryland funded by the National Security Agency and unlikely to minimize the benefits of surveillance, showed that tighter screenings and bagage controls had no impact on hijackings.16 More importantly, terrorists have shown time and again that they could easily evade new measures. In 1994, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef bombed Philippine Airlines Flight 434 by carrying wires in his shoe heels after he saw that metal detectors did not check them and used liquid nitroglycerin, invisible to X-rays.17 From shoe bomber Richard Reid to underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, terrorists have shown that they could adapt to any new scanning device. Even if airports decided to have us board planes naked after an all-cavity search, this would not be enough. In 2013, security researcher Evan Booth showed how to build no less than eleven types of weapons just using material he bought in the duty free area, after airport controls.18 Truth be said, a hijacker does not even need a weapon. Seif Eldin Mustafa hijacked EgyptAir Flight 181 just by claiming that he had a bomb.

Not only are the options available to blow up a plane infinite and therefore uncontrollable, current controls are wholly useless, as the American examples quoted above show (over 9 in 10 attempts to smuggle weapons through controls were successful). A theoretical argument explains why controls will nevel be able to catch would-be hijackers or bombers. Any test is bound to have failures, either false-positives (a non-terrorist is called a terrorist) or false-negatives (a terrorist is let through). Even with a scanning machine that’s right 99 times out of 100 and 1 terrorist for every 2000 passengers (both estimates are very, very generous), the machine will produce so many false-positives that the personnel operating it will stop taking it seriously.19 I once tested positive for explosives, for instance. The security personnel simply redid the test (three times) until the machine declared me negative.

Airplane hijacking was mostly a solved issue by the end of the 1970s. However, passengers and regulators mistakenly attributed this victory to passenger controls when the real reason was the criminalization of hijackers and the fight against safe heavens. From this failure to disentangle correlation from causation, we paved the way for the growth of the “miniature police state”.

Since the advent of low-cost carriers in the 1990s, flying has become normal. The volume of flyers in the general population has increased and the share of non-flyers among certain social strata has crumbled to virtually zero. It is impossible to be a scientist, a salesperson, a politician or an intellectual today and not to fly. A successful career means a European or global career, which, in turns, implies frequent flying. There are very few long-distance trains and taking a ship to attend a conference in New-York or Singapore would make one look like an eccentric, at best.

Between leisure and professional travels, any decision-maker in Europe or the United States is likely to fly at least monthly. Over a five-year period, this implies going at least a hundred times through the arbitrary and senseless controls at airports. Either one is convinced that passenger controls have an impact on security and are happy to accept their invasive procedures as a necessary evil, or one knows that controls are part of a "security theater"20 and accepts them because the cost of resistance (missing a flight) is too high. Millions of air travelers have (falsely) learned that freedom could be traded for security or that trying to defend freedom was too expensive.

Schooled by years of submission to arbitrary authority at airport controls, decision-makers and intellectuals were mollified in their understanding of fundamental rights, which they traded for convenience or a false sense of security. They also saw that they were not affected ; minorities are the ones suffering from the invasion of their privacy.21 Regulators, in turn, saw that they could restrict the freedom of airport passengers as much as they wanted to, at no political cost, and drew the right conclusion: They could restrict freedom anywhere else, too.

Airport controls were given a free rein in 1973 after a US court declared they did not violate the fourth amendment of the American constitution, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures”.22 Had the court ruled otherwise, airports might have stopped invasive procedures, intellectual and politicians might have remembered what fundamental rights were and we might not have extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detention today.

I wrote this essay because I am flabbergasted at how few intellectuals and politicians voice concerns over the destruction of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms in France, the United Kingdom and Germany (it’s happening elsewhere, too, but that is where I live).23 It comforts me to believe that their lack of reaction has a specific cause.

Of course, there is another possible explanation: That intellectuals and decision-makers never gave much consideration to fundamental rights and only cared for their own well-being. This is, even for me, too sad a hypothesis to consider.


1. Here are a couple of stories from 2010 about leaks of nude: One Hundred Naked Citizens: One Hundred Leaked Body Scans, Feds admit storing checkpoint body scan images.

2. Read Shah Rukh signs off sexy body-scan printouts at Heathrow.

3. Read Airport denies body scanner photo claim by Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. The main line of defense of the airport is that the body scanners are not connected to a printer. Given that all employees probably have smartphones, the argument is flimsy at best. (Their other argument, that people do not go through scanners when they disembark, is much stronger).

4. Note that this applies to most European airports, not to the United States, where searches are performed by government agents.

5. I’ve witnessed the humiliation several times myself, and here’s an article about what happens to scientists who carry uncommon items: That Time the TSA Found a Scientist’s 3-D-Printed Mouse Penis. Imagine carrying the same kind of items and not being a scientist.

6. Read Acting TSA director reassigned after screeners failed tests to detect explosives, weapons.

7. Read Minneapolis Airport Fails 95 Percent of Security Tests, Sources Say.

8. Reported in this Le Monde article from 1972: À la recherche d’une parade.

9. English Wikipedia has a comprehensive article on the case.

10. Read AIRLINE STOPPAGE ORDERED MONDAY in the NYTimes archive, or a history of the strike (in French): Le retour du détournement aérien, arme privilégiée du terrorisme.

11. The Hague Hijacking Convention.

12. As Ambassador Godley wrote in a secret diplomatic cable in 1974.

13. As with this story of an Ethiopian pilot who hijacked his own plane to ask for asylum in Switzerland: Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacks plane to seek Geneva asylum or EgyptAir flight 181.

14. Read Sécurité renforcée dans les aéroports de Paris.

15. In Skyjacked: The Strange History of Plane Hijackings in America.

16. See Testing a Rational Choice Model of Airline Hijackings. They also say that it is hard to disantangle the impact of each policy, because they were implemented at roughly the same time.

17. Read New Devices May Foil Airline Security.

18. See his project, Airport Cornucopia.

19. Let’s say there are 20,000 would be terrorists among a population of 40 million, which is the - probably overestimated - number of terrorist suspects in France. Let’s say a machine detects them 99 times out of 100. Out of 1 million passengers, there will be 495 true positive for terrorists, but 9995 false positives for non-terrorists. Each time the machine beeps, there is only one chance out of 20 that the person is a terrorist.

20. The term was coined by security researcher Bruce Schneier, read his Beyond Security Theater.

21. Read what it means for transgender persons who can be outed by airport controls, for instance.

22. The case was United States vs. Davis. See How The TSA Legally Circumvents The Fourth Amendment for the context. I could not find the legal grounds in Europe for airport controls.

23. On this topic, read my essay Confronting Authoritarianism.