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Airport Security: Israel vs. the United States

Last July, an interesting post appeared in Bruce Schneier’s blog. It’s called: Airport Security: Israel vs. the United States. It discusses the difference between airport security in Israel and in the U.S. The post quotes evidence showing that the airport security in Israel is based more on interrogation and less on mechanical scanning. Mr. Schneier commented:

Regularly I hear people talking about Israeli airport security, and asking why we can’t do the same in the U.S. The short answer is: scale. Israel has 11 million airline passengers a year; there are close to 700 million in the U.S. Israel has seven airports; the U.S. has over 400 “primary” airports — and who knows how many others. Things that can work there just don’t scale to the U.S.

I do not generally buy this.

Indeed, the traffic in Israel is way lighter, but so is the number of airports and so are the resources spent on security. Carlo Graziani commented that it is more or less the same number of passengers per airport per year in both countries. He has a point.

As I see it, there are two reasons why the Israeli mechanism does not fit well in the U.S.:

First, the population that visits the Israeli airports is much more homogeneous. Most people who travel through Israel are Israelis. This makes interrogation-based classification much easier. Most passengers meet some behavioral profile and the ones who don’t are taken aside for some extra screening. Deploying such a method in a U.S. airport will lead to extra screening being carried out on every second passenger, at least.

Second, I feel that the Israeli’s approach to fighting terrorism is slightly more mature than that of the U.S. Americans started thinking seriously about fighting terrorism 6 years ago. Israelis have been occupied by preventing terrorism for 60 years. The Israeli school of thought is based more on reliance on the human mind, the human sense, and the gut-based threshold. It sees technology is an aiding facility. Americans put more eggs in the basket of technology, and see the human element mostly as an operator of the technology.

Experience, both in Israel and in the U.S., has shown that it probably is much more difficult for a terrorist to avoid a well trained interrogator than a shoe scanner. (Not to underestimate the importance of the latter.)


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