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Stupid Security Awards: the envelope, please . . .

Published May 4, 2003

On a return trip from Washington, D.C., the other day I was plucked out of line for heightened security. In addition to having a guard paw through the contents of my pocketbook, I was told to stand with my arms and legs out like Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man while a wand was passed over my body.

I endured this humiliation because I had to in order to get home to St. Petersburg. But it burned me to know that while I was being put through these paces, checked luggage of people from connecting flights was being placed in the cargo hold regardless of whether they actually got on the flight. The most basic security measure - making sure that every piece of checked luggage is matched to a passenger - is not required by the Transportation Security Administration for domestic air travel.

Back in 1996, originating and connecting baggage matching was a centerpiece recommendation made by a commission headed by then-Vice President Al Gore. But because of the costs and potential for delaying flights, the airline industry has successfully kept it out of the rules, even though bag matching had been required on all international flights since 1989.

What I went through is called an illusion of security - a condition that is now a national affliction. Bag matching for every passenger would provide far more real safety from a terror attack than plucking out a few people per flight for an intrusive search. But real safety is costly for the airlines, whereas ersatz safety only costs my dignity. So I lose, as does the traveling public.

This is the calculation that has been in play since the attacks of Sept. 11. Brigades of security "experts" have been dispatched to design gatekeeping systems that keep us from freely walking into office buildings, stadiums, museums and government buildings. But the procedures developed inflict us with petty tortures without truly adding anything measurable to security. My typical experience is being required to open my purse, which is often only peeked into. I am then permitted to proceed, with my coat and pants pockets unchecked.

Gee, no terrorist could possibly contravene such a crack security system.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a London-based watchdog group that tracks surveillance activities of business and government, calls the proliferation of these inane security measures a "global menace." In a can't-laugh-for-crying response, Davies organized the first international "Stupid Security Competition." Five thousand entries from 35 countries were culled to find "the world's most pointless, intrusive and egregious security measures." Here are some of the winners:

The Most Inexplicably Stupid Award went to Philadelphia International Airport for an incident in February involving a Saudi Arabian college student and some cologne.

As reported by Reuters, the 22-year-old student who was trying to catch a plane to Saudi Arabia was questioned about some bottled liquid in his luggage. While explaining it was just cologne, he sprayed it on himself and some landed on two airport security guards. This led to a code-red hazardous materials alert. The two guards were sent to a hospital which then quarantined its emergency room for hours while the material was being identified. A doughnut shop and drugstore were also closed because they were visited by two Philadelphia police officers who had examined the cologne bottle. Eventually, the student's claims that it was cologne were substantiated and he was released to fly.

The Most Flagrantly Intrusive Award was given to the Delta Air Lines terminal at JFK International Airport. In August 2002, it was reported that Elizabeth McGarry of Oceanside, N.Y., a nursing mother carrying a 4-month-old infant, was told by airport security to drink three bottles of her own breast milk or she wasn't getting on the plane. They told her that she could have put explosives in the bottles. When she asked if she could at least feed the milk to her baby instead, she was refused.

San Francisco General Hospital won the Most Counter-Productive Security Award for its requirement that anyone who enters the hospital have photo identification. Armed guards at the front door enforced this regulation and turned away the homeless people and others seeking medical care who couldn't comply. But while all this security was focused on the front entrance, side doors were kept open and unguarded.

The list of insanities is truly endless (see and by now most Americans have experienced one or two themselves, such as when airport security confiscated my cuticle scissors. Yeah, that protected America.

Bruce Schneier, a security expert who believes interests other than security are too often taken into account, points out that airport security prevents knitting needles on board but lighters and matches that could ignite an explosive are okay. Could it be that the tobacco industry exerted some influence?

The illusion of security means low-level, harassing and hassling authorities are given absolute control over whether we may get where we're going while at the same time providing no added safety. This is what our billions of dollars is buying - one vast, ever-expanding heap of stupid security.

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