TSA: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There has been a lot of stories lately about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and most have been less than flattering (to say the least). How can an agency that was designed to “serve and protect” the citizens of the United States from harm evoke such wrath from ordinarily shy and non-vocal travelers? This blog is about product design, and so my analysis of the situation will treat this as a failure of product design. Where are the failures?

Mistake #1

TSA Conceptual Design: Blocking

There are bad guys out there that want to do us—citizen travelers from US—harm. There are the box-cutter carrying terrorists, the shoe-bombers, the liquid explosives bandits, the underwear-bombers, the printer cartridge explosives engineers. TSA installed airport security measures that would counteract each of these threats as they revealed themselves. The basic conceptual design strategy here is blocking: identify a threat and find an effective block. This is a strategy based on hindsight: if we knew that people could sneak bombs in their underwear, then we would have had a way to block it. We didn’t know, but now we do, and so we created systems to block this threat in the future.

TSA Game Plan: Escalating Costs

If we think of this as a game strategy, then the game is smart mouse versus reactive cat. In this game, there is always an opportunity for a mouse to outsmart the cat at least initially. Since mice are very smart (in this game) and have almost infinite resources (time, money, people, imagination, and will to do us harm), the cat will always be in losing position where the only way to succeed is to identify the mouse’s strategy early enough to avoid damage and then block that move in perpetuity. The result of this strategy is an ever escalating costs of the game: to implement each strategy block costs time, money, education, and resources.

But there are other costs as well. Good will among the people who have to navigate the increasingly convoluted blocks is inversely proportional to the difficulty of these blocks. The increasing demand on travelers’ time, the intrusion into personal/private space of individuals, the sharp decrease in the liberties to pack and carry personal items, and (hopefully) inadvertent damage to physical and emotional health of passengers are pushing the population into direct opposition to TSA. Not good.

Mistake #2

Design for Division: Us Versus Them

Most games have an us versus them structure—a healthy competition that makes games fun. Game designers develop games that use this dichotomy to create interesting and even addictive experiences for their audiences. This is great for games, not so good for airport security.

Unfortunately, TSA set its product—the airport security system—so that it created a natural “us versus them” division: TSA agents form one group and travelers another. TSA agents have to treat all travelers as possible terrorists—this is part of the product design strategy that TSA implemented to combat terrorism. The moment we enter the airport, we are all suspects, we are all possible bad guys. TSA agents have to think this way to do their job (as defined) properly. Everyone is a suspect. It’s TSA against the world!

No one should be treated differently from anyone else: a one-year-old baby? Well, it could have plastic explosive in its diaper. A little old granny? It could be carrying liquid explosives as part of its medicine bag. It is hard for a TSA agent to think this way, but with training, everyone can be seen as an it. Dehumanize the travelers enough, and you are no longer taking away human dignity, or inflicting physical and psychological pain, or confiscating life-saving medications, you’re just doing your job…

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, Stanford University professor, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, stared a psychological experiment in which he divided a bunch of students into two groups: the prisoners and their guards. The students were assigned to each group at random and prior to the experiment each student underwent a psychological evaluation to exclude any potentially “psychologically unstable” individuals. Twenty-four men were chosen to participate in Dr. Zimbardo’s experiment. Nine students were made prisoners and assigned to three “jail cells.” The rest were made “prison guards” and assigned eight-hour work shifts to watch over the prisoners. The experiment had uniforms, mock cells resembling a real prison setting, and even some police sirens.

Within 24 hours, something remarkable started: the guards and the prisoners were undergoing a psychological transformation! These young men, Stanford students, stopped playing the roles they were assigned by the professor and became prisoners and jail guards!

By experimental design, students playing guards were given an enormous freedom to act as they perceived real guards would, with an exception of actually inflicting physical pain on their fellow students playing the roles of prisoners. At first, prison guards were playing around and keeping prisoners awake at night—acting as as they’ve learned jailers act in the movies. But the play turned real. Night shift guards worked hard to dehumanize their victims. They rattled keys, blinded prisoners with their spot lights, randomly woke them up for a “count.” And while prisoners tried to resist the brutal tactics at the beginning of the experiment, as time progressed and guards became more and more aggressive, prisoners started to exhibit symptoms of a real nervous breakdown!

The Stanford Prison Experiment was stopped short due the horrific effects on both populations of students. Some young men needed counseling to return to normal. Some had real symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (as defined today—PTSD was not part of the DSM in 1971). You can read more on this experiment here.

TSA Prison Experiment Reenactment

There is something hauntingly familiar in the way TSA officers interact with travelers and the Stanford Prison Experiment. TSA officers are just regular people with high school education wearing uniforms, possessing power and authority over other people without uniforms, and with a mandate to treat all other people as possible terrorist suspects. Given what we learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment, TSA agents (even real good ones) will assume the characteristics of sadistic guards in a very short time period on the job. This transformation is built into the system set up by TSA. By creating the powerful enforcers of justice group and letting it loose on the terrorist suspects, TSA is just reenacting the Stanford Prison Experiment (and set up for endless loop of mirroring errors—seeing rare events as common occurrences). And we know how that went…

Beyond TSA

And the effects of the TSA grouping doesn’t end with inspections. ALL of the airport personnel has been trained to “look for suspicious terrorists.” So even after passing through security, the passengers are still under the spotlight of suspicion—the us versus them game continues. This results in weird altercations at the gate, the reprimands from ticket checkers, the ugly stares from the janitorial staff… The harassment continuous until the passengers have exited the airport perimeter at their final destinations! This is hours and hours of psychological pressure, leaving some individuals with symptoms of PTSD!

Mistake #3

After September 11 attack, people came together. Passengers were willing to undergo more scrutiny prior to boarding the plane in the hopes of preventing a similar attack in a future.

But as TSA ratcheted up this scrutiny, the psychology of the system dynamics have changed. While people who were taken aside for additional examination by TSA officers were seen as “bad” people by fellow travelers in the beginning. Now, these individuals are seen as sympathetic! Now, the bad guys are the TSA officers and not the bad individuals who set off the metal detector or wore their pants that were too wide. The passengers who refuse the personal intrusion are seen as heros!

Loss of Travelers’ Trust

This is bad! Not only are passengers are feeling strong affinity for each other, they are willing to protect each other from TSA. This means that TSA set up a system that encourages passengers to protect each other and to cover up for each other. This is exactly what TSA should want to avoid. Since it is the vigilance of the passengers that really is the key tool to security and defense (and it was the passengers that were instrumental in defeating the previous terrorist attempts, not TSA officers).

Mistake #4

Economic Hit

There is a lot of talk now about avoiding air travel as a way of avoiding the stress of TSA search. This will have a direct hit on the economic prosperity of airlines, hotels and travel services, restaurants, goods aimed at and for travelers, and so on. This is an economic domino effect and it is not good for our country.

Mistake #5

Technological & Systems Solution

TSA had options when they were looking for a strategy dealing with airport. There’s much talk on the Internet about the Israeli strategy for dealing with securing air travel. TSA didn’t chose a similar strategy. Instead, TSA chose technology and systems solution. They developed and deployed technology that is a direct block to a past threat, and set up systems that can be executed mindlessly by the low-level employees.

So we have x-ray detectors to spot those nail clippers in our hand baggage; we have to take off shoes to have them sniffed for explosive materials; we have metal detectors to ring up our underwire bras and belt buckles; and now we have full body scans to look in our underwear. What’s next? (Many point out that a proctological exam is a natural progression.)

We have already given up the convenience of the curbside check-in. We are wearing sensible shoes and buying no-metal bras. We stand by as people are harassed out of their wheelchairs. We are dumb-struck when TSA officers feel around our kids underpants. But this is what systems solution is all about: blind implementation of procedures that don’t allow for any deviation of the rules.

Education and TSA Officers

TSA made a decision that a minimum of high school education is enough for a prospective airport security officers. It’s cheaper to hire non-college educated personnel. And since TSA adapted the systems solution, they needed a lot of personnel to enact the rules on each individual going through the security. All these officers have to do is follow procedures to the letter. Each trigger activates a new set of procedures. All passengers—young and old, healthy and disabled, alone or with family—are treated the same.

But not all passengers are the same. Some are the bad guys we are trying to catch with these technology and systems solutions. But blind rule following have been shown over and over again to not be very effective at this task. And technology can only detect what it was design to detect—it’s not smart enough to spot new threats. Even TSA admitted that we are no safer today than pre nine-eleven security. Then what’s the point?

Mistake #6

Power to the People

The world changes very fast. We’re about pass the time where casual harassment by a TSA officers will go unbroadcast to the world. People blog, tweet, post, write, take photos, and film their experiences and share them with the whole world. It’s easy for an individual to express outrange at bad treatment and easy for others to pick up and spread those feelings to everyone they know. News travels fast…

TSA officers will need a lot more additional training to keep the PR damage to a minimum. And as we recently learned: nothing is really a secret once it is encapsulated in a computer file…

Mistake #7

Unfortunately, we’re no safer