Monday, December 28, 2009

Thinking About Airline Security

The decade that began with 9/11 ends with the near-miss of 12/25. Paul Krugman called this decade today in the New York Times the "Big Zero," the decade we accomplished nothing and learned nothing. He was talking about the economy, but it applies to other things as well. When it comes to terrorism and air travel, it certainly has been the "Big Zero" decade. We haven't learned a thing.

I flew back from Israel on December 22, 3 days before the latest Christmas Day fizzled attack on a Northwest/Delta Airbus 330 as it was descending towards the Detroit airport. On December 22, I flew on a Delta flight. Before I ever entered the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, I was subjected to 9 distinct security measures. I knew, as do all air travellers leaving Israel, that I needed to arrive at the airport security line 3 hours before departure time. So here is what happened: (1) My taxi was stopped at a fixed security checkpoint more than a mile out from the airport. (2) I was eyeballed by a security officer as I walked towards the main entrance of the departure hall. (3) I was pre-screened by a verbal question and sent into a line of other passengers. (4) I was then verbally interviewed by a security officer who examined my passport, my boarding pass, and asked me questions about why I was in Israel, how it was that I spoke Hebrew, who invited me to conduct business in Israel, where I -- once it was apparent I was a Hebrew-speaking American Jew -- prayed in the United States, what my family ties to Israel were, where I stayed, who my friends in Israel are, if I had packed my own case, if I was taking any gifts. (5) My checked luggage was then x-rayed. Because of my answers, I was allowed to skip a hand inspection of the contents of my checked and carry-on luggage (we won't count that). After checking my luggage at the flight desk, (6) my papers were again examined, and (7) I then had my carry on pieces x-rayed and I passed through a magnetometer. The magnetometer went off, and (8) I was then directed to stand on some unusual electrified platform for a few seconds, and only then was I permitted to gather my carry-on and waved through. Let's not count passport control as a security measure (though it is). All this took 90 minutes. I had 30 minutes to visit duty free. Boarding began 1 hour before departure time. At the gate, (9) I was again subjected to a complete x-ray of my carry-on luggage and then subjected to another magnetometer. That lead to the jetway and to the plane. And remember -- because of my answers, I skipped through at least 2 further security layers: a hand inspection of my luggage contents and a body search (I've had both in the past).

Eight days earlier, I flew a Delta flight to Israel from JFK. I was subjected to 4 security measures. (1) My checked luggage was subjected out of my view to an x-ray scan. (2) I had my passport and boarding pass quickly eyeballed by a TSA officer. (3) I then went through a magnetometer while my carry-on was scanned. (4) Because I was flying to Israel, there was a secondary magnetometer and x-ray of my carry-on luggage conducted by bored and apathetic private security personnel at the gate (hired by an airline that is so penny-pinching that it charges $6 for an onboard snack in coach domestic flight). For most flights, that security check at the gate is not performed. No one asked me a question. Not a one.

It doesn't take much brainpower to figure out what is wrong with this picture. The key is the verbal interview. A trained interviewer needs to ask certain intrusive and pointed questions. And based on those answers, certain other questions should be posed. If anything is wrong, keep asking questions, submit luggage to hand inspection, do a body search with a wand or with your hands. And that is something that simply will not be done in these United States. Imagine for a second: ask someone named Umar Farouq Abdalmutallab a few questions. Observe his answers and his demeanor. Have a computer on hand connected to a database of 550,000 names on it. Check his or her name if you have any hesitations about sending him on to his next step. Do this for every single passenger. Profile passengers. Travelling alone? Have an Arabic or Muslim name? Are you a citizen of some country known for terrorist inculcation? (I don't mean the usual suspects -- I also mean Britain.) What is your religious beliefs, if any? Who are your friends?

But we will not see these practices in these United States. "Privacy issues." "Civil rights." "Overly intrusive." But the real issue is the manpower and cost it would take to provide real security for the US air transportation system, which is magnitudes greater than the passenger totals of a single small country's single international airport. Instead we have an understaffed TSA putting passengers through a charade of meaningless procedures which do not actually provide security, but rather dispenses a psychological calming effect to the travelling public.

Rather than ask a question or use professional profiling techniques, the air transportation system responds with palliative demonstrations of faux dynamic response to a heightened sense of insecurity. We now have to sit in our seats without a blanket, have entertainment systems altered to disable GPS maps, time our bathroom trips so we don't spend too much time in the lavatory, and reduce our carry-on belongings. In other words, use the same stupid methods inaugurated in late 2001: subject everyone to ineffective "security measures" because no one will dare ask a passenger a question. This passive security system -- no forward questions, no profiling -- has failed again and again. Until there is a fundamental change in the way the TSA approaches air transportation security, we will never find a solution to the scourge of our modern, hate-filled times.

What a joke.

My first year using an iPhone: Favorite Apps

As 2009 rolls away, I thought I'd take a moment to share with probably no one what I've come to enjoy most on my iPhone 3G, purchased in January of this year. In other words, yet another list of "my favorite apps" to clog up the Internet. In the past 11 months I've installed and removed dozens of apps, but these are the ones that I use almost every day.

First things first: you would be a fool not to jailbreak your phone. Only 10% of the customer base does so, but it is a no-brainer. There are easier and harder ways to do this, and if you are not tech savvy you might find it difficult. Always a struggle when Apple issues a software upgrade (so resist the temptation to upgrade your phone's software whenever the opportunity arises - wait until DevTeam gives the all clear), but the JB community has managed to keep up so far.

If you are already running iPhone OS 3.1.2 and have a Windows PC, here are clear instructions for jailbreaking your phone, from Redmond Pie, a great site by Taimur Asad, a student at Bahria University in Pakistan.

Having said that, here is what I have found to be my everyday essentials (just Google for more info):

1. (JB) OpenHebrew3. Made by Tom Zickel, an undergrad at the Technion, it is the perfect way to make an iPhone handle Hebrew, long before the iPhone was introduced (just this month) to the Israeli market. Still the best.
2. (JB) Ultrasn0w. This is already a bit outdated, but it is how I achieve "unlock" status on my slightly dated baseband. Be careful here! If your baseband has been updated along with 3.1.2, you might not be able to use this trick. Instead you will need something called (JB) Blacksn0w. Unlocks the phone so you can pop in a GSM chip from any provider. Most local telcoms sell pay-as-you go chips. Essential for international travel and getting cheap local rates. OK, I don't use this every day, but whenever I am overseas, it is essential.
3. ($) News Feed Elite. A great aggregator of news sources, very customizable.
4. Skype. Only works out of the box in Wifi environments, but with (JB) VoIPover3G will work in 3G-land also.
5. ($$$) Slingplayer. $40 well spent. Same as Skype, designed by AT&T to work only in Wifi, but with (JB) VoIPover3G will work under 3G. Of course, you need a SlingBox connected to your cable box at home. But once you have it all set up, watch your home TV ANYWHERE!
6. (JB) VoIPover3G. Requires going into the guts of the phone with SSH (abbreviation for Secure SHell; get [JB] OpenSSH), but it damn works!
7. ($) Tweetie. Best twitter app I've come across.
8. ($) WhiteNoise. Great way to go to sleep. Pick your sound, from crickets to waves on the beach to white noise. Also a free lite version, less sounds.
9. (JB) Backgrounder. Allows apps to run in the background. Combined with (JB) ProSwitcher and you have a Palm-Pre style quick application jumper. Can be a real battery drainer if you aren't careful.
10. ($$) WorldMate Gold. Expensive but useful way to keep track of all your trips, flights, hotels, car rentals.
11. Shazam. What the hell is that song? Run this app while the music is playing, and it will go out and get you all the details.
12. ($) Missile Command. Favorite game from grad school, rendered nicely.
13. ($) HebrewBible. The whole Hebrew Tanakh, searchable. Also includes Siddur.
14. ($) TopDictionaries Hebrew<->English Translator. $10, but the best dictionary out there. Uses its own keyboard inside the app.
15. Wikipanion. Nice gateway into Wikipedia. Great way to settle disagreements about facts.
16. ($) PocketTouch. $.99. Nice gesture-based way to flip through songs. Great in the car or (I am told) while exercising. It was better as a JB app, but the developer went legit.
17. Sportacular. Great way to stay current on sports scores, pushes game updates.
18. (JB) BossPrefs and (JB) SBSettings. Install in that order. Great way to gain control of the phone's settings quickly.