Security theater takes a crooked turn

When passengers are ruffed up on the plane because they simply want to stand up, you know security theater has taken a turn for the worst.

One of my infosec friends shared a story that illustrates just how out of control security theater has become.

The New York Times article tells the story of Bill Pollock, who was treated like a thug on a United Airlines flight from Zurich to Washington Dulles International Airport Jan. 2. His crime was that he wanted to get up, stretch his legs and visit his wife, who was sitting in another part of the plane. From the article:

At a time of heightened security concerns, disgruntled airline employees and frustrated passengers can be a combustible combination in a crowded aircraft, as travelers find themselves subject to lots of rules and little wiggle room to challenge them.

Pollock, a book publisher from Burlingame, Calif., said he wanted to stretch his legs and visit his wife seated on the opposite aisle, using the passageway behind the galleys in the plane’s midsection. But when he questioned a flight attendant on the policy and began recording their conversation using his cellphone, the situation quickly escalated: the flight attendant grabbed his phone and nearby federal air marshals intervened.

“Two marshals held me up against the counter, they had my hands behind my back,” Mr. Pollock said. “I wasn’t violent, I didn’t use four-letter words. All I did was ask this guy about the sign on the curtain and they flipped out.” The flight was met by United personnel and security agents, who, Mr. Pollock said, took his statement and then sent him on his way.

Some quick thoughts on this:

I realize we need to have tougher security in the post-9-11 world. The air marshals are necessary in the event somebody gets hostile and really threatens the safety of everyone on board. I even think the TSA is necessary. I also acknowledge that since I wasn't on the plane, I may not have the entire story.

But my reaction, based on the NYT article itself, is that this is another example of the TSA taking things too far. I'm for reasonable security. If someone looks threatening and has weapons in his bag, it's appropriate to detain him and investigate. Children, senior citizens and family groups do not fit the criteria.

From all outward appearances, Pollock did not fit the criteria. If things played out exactly as he claims, it's an outrage -- another example of security personnel acting like bullies, often to give others the appearance that they are acting in the interest of passenger safety.

We need to do better.

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