Friday, November 12, 2010

Why security is not THE goal: TSA, built to fail.

There is an old joke in computer security:
Q: How do I make my computer secure?
A: Lock it in a safe and put it at the bottom of the ocean.
The joke being that you've made the computer really safe, but also completely unusable.

But this joke has a good lesson, and that is: Security is never THE goal.

It is a goal, one of many. But it's never the only thing you're trying to accomplish. There are always other goals, e.g. making something useful, perform well, appealing to the senses, or just available to enjoy.

Security is always a trade-off with these other goals. As Bruce Schneier puts very well in his talk (worth watching), the question is not "will it make us safer?" but "was it worth the trade-off?"

Following that logic, I've always thought that making security the goal of single organization, or group in an organization - "the security team", was a bad idea because it let the everyone else off the hook for security, they could assume "the security team has it" and ignore it.

But I've realized lately there is an even stronger reason why it is a bad idea - any organization or team who's sole focus is security will, by nature of doing their job, continuously increase security without regard for anything else.

And, to my point, one of these other things is protecting our civil liberties.

Like many others, I'm very unhappy with the TSA's new body scanners. Their policies to this point have been silly and annoying, but this is now crossing a line, in the opinion of many, myself included, from annoying to violating. (The no-fly list has arguably done so as well for years now.)

How did we get into this mess?

In thinking about this, we've created an organization in the TSA whose sole goal is security. Heck, it's one third of their name and it's baked into their mission:
The Transportation Security Administration protects the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
First and foremost is "protect the transportation systems." They started in the right direction with "ensure freedom of movement," but that's stopping far short of ensuring civil liberties, dignity, and privacy.

So fundamentally, "we've" created an organization that only cares about security. Back to Bruce's point, they only ask if something will make thing more secure, not whether it's a good trade-off against privacy, civil liberties, economics, or even if it's just silly. If it increases security, they've done their job.

Add to that the lack of any real oversight, congress is not going to risk looking weak on security, and we've created a department that has a mission to keep protecting the transportation system to a greater and greater degree, with no constraints.

And it will keep protecting that system more and more until we're all flying locked in safes, or worse.