Who will screen the screeners?

October 6th, 2012 at 15:19 UTC by Ross Anderson

Last time I flew through Luton airport it was a Sunday morning, and I went up to screening with a copy of the Sunday Times in my hand; it’s non-metallic after all. The guard by the portal asked me to put it in the tray with my bag and jacket, and I did so. But when the tray came out, the newspaper wasn’t there. I approached the guard and complained. He tried to dismiss me but I was politely insistent. He spoke to the lady sitting at the screen; she picked up something with a guilty look sideways at me, and a few seconds later my paper came down the rollers. As I left the screening area, there were two woman police constables, and I wondered whether I should report the attempted theft of a newspaper. As my flight was leaving in less than an hour, I walked on by. But who will screen the screeners?

This morning I once more flew through Luton, and I started to suspect it wouldn’t be the airport’s management. This time the guard took exception to the size of the clear plastic bag holding my toothpaste, mouthwash and deodorant, showing me with glee that it has half a centimetre wider than the official outline on a card he had right to hand. I should mention that I was using a Sainsbury’s freezer bag, a standard item in our kitchen which we’ve used for travel for years. No matter; the guard gleefully ordered me to buy an approved one for a pound from a slot machine placed conveniently beside the belt. (And we thought Ryanair’s threat to charge us a pound to use the loo was just a marketing gimmick.) But what sort of signal do you give to low-wage security staff if the airport merely sees security as an excuse to shake down the public? And after I got through to the lounge and tried to go online, I found that the old Openzone service (which charged by the minute) is no longer on offer; instead Luton Airport now demands five pounds for an hour’s access. So I’m writing this blog post from Amsterdam, and next time I’ll probably fly from Stansted.

Perhaps one of these days I’ll write a paper on “Why Security Usability is Hard”. Meanwhile, if anyone reading this is near Amsterdam on Monday, may I recommend the Amderdam Privacy Conference? Many interesting people will be talking about the ways in which governments bother us. (I’m talking about how the UK government is trying to nobble the Data Protection Regulation in order to undermine health privacy.)

Entry filed under: Legal issues, Politics, Security economics, Security engineering, Security psychology

4 comments Add your own

  • 1. Nick  |  October 6th, 2012 at 15:37 UTC

    I prefer the night ferry between Harwich and Hoek van Holland – far less security theatre.

  • 2. Dave Walker  |  October 6th, 2012 at 17:19 UTC

    Apparently, ABC News have already done some investigating involving equipment “going missing” through TSA scans in the US; take a look at http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/abc-news-tracks-missing-ipad-florida-home-tsa/story?id=17331937#.UHBoJ_l25Ld .

  • 3. Gervase Markham  |  October 7th, 2012 at 08:51 UTC

    I got what seemed quite like an attempt to shake me down for that £1 at Manchester Airport, justified on the grounds of security: “You have to have it in the little plastic bag otherwise we can’t sniff test it properly”. Well if that’s true, love, then your security sucks…


  • 4. Craig  |  October 8th, 2012 at 23:19 UTC

    Interesting on the Luton shakedown – i had the same experience, with a twist.

    The place was mobbed, the screener wouldn’t let me proceed without purchasing a new bag from the slot machine (mine was tied closed rather than self sealing).

    I purchased the new bags (came in a capsule of 3 if i remember correctly), whereupon i was whisked through – contents still in the old bag.

    He had no interest in me using an alternative bag, only that i would pay my £1.

    Can’t help wondering if there are incentives for sales numbers of those bags.

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