Remove Your Shoes and Remember to Grab a Diet Jingle

This latest trip was a tedious yawner. I was traveling between my Washington, D.C.-area office and Seattle. The cross-country jaunt was for a one-day seminar, and I was going to take the red-eye home after a sleepless one-night stay in suburban Bellevue. After a successful if uneventful session in a hotel meeting room, I was back at the airport less than 24 hours after my arrival. This was the first time I had noticed a surprising new feature of the TSA security screening process: good old-fashioned American advertising.

The anticipated battleship gray plastic bins used to hold laptops, coins, shoes and jackets for the screening process were now brightly colored and sported a garish advertisement for a big technology company. Every passenger silently shuffling along in his or her stocking feet had plenty of free time to drink in the bright primary colors and learn how this company could provide you the absolute best deals in technology and professional services. I could almost picture the vice president of marketing for this company beaming at the thought that I, a targeted technology consumer, was standing there right now learning all about the company and memorizing the dot-com digital location so I could buy, buy, buy!

Is this what our national security has come to? Adverstising on “security” trays? What’s next? Perhaps we will soon see those snappy TSA uniforms festooned with enough corporate logos to make them look like a NASCAR jumpsuit. Airport security: brought to you today by Diet Jingle Cola. Remember our motto, folks: when travelers mingle, they prefer Diet Jingle. Perchance screeners will soon have a daily cue card so they can say, “Please show your ID and boarding pass. And thank you, from Monster Motors. If you’d rather drive, choose the Q5.”

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there was a common understanding that dramatic improvements in airline security were absolutely vital. Politicians of all stripes lined up to demand federal oversight of airport physical security and passenger screening. No one in Washington disagreed on the “what,” but there was raucous discord regarding the “how.” In one memorable exchange, then-Senator and ersatz security expert Tom Daschle famously demanded, “To professionalize, you need to federalize.”

At the time, I wasn’t fully convinced that screeners needed to be a federal enforcement arm of the nascent Homeland Security Department, but I was optimistic and was envisioning a paramilitary-type force: tough, professional and well-trained. That’s not what I see today. I realize I beat the Transportation Security Administration like a rented mule, but this has nothing to do with the dedicated men and women who perform that difficult job. It has everything to do with the decisions being made on how they are trained and how this vital function is performed. Now my concerns also include how that function will be perceived.

It would appear that allowing a corporate sponsor to provide the plastic screening trays replete with advertising is a prudent and cost-conscious decision. I am not sure, however, where this practice stops, and how deeply entrenched it will become. Much of transportation security is focused on its impact on the traveling public. Additionally, a strong security posture has a dramatic impact on potential attackers. Any professionally designed security program implemented by well-trained security personnel can demonstrably discourage thieves, terrorists and assorted criminals from even attempting to attack an organization’s assets.

When banks used to maintain large tangible deposits like gold, bonds and currency on-site, they would spend vast sums to build imposing stone neo-Gothic structures with barred windows, lofty ceilings, and acres of marble and granite surfaces. Gleaming hardened vaults stood as conspicuous testimony to modern industrial engineering as art. In addition to the obvious security benefits, these architectural masterpieces were meant to assure potential customers of the bank’s commitment to solid security and organizational permanence while discouraging potential robbers and thieves. In the practice of security, you ignore the human factor at your peril.

Politicians and administrators should ask themselves if the use of corporate advertising during the screening process will enhance the perception of professionalism in our federal screeners and other public sector employees charged with protecting the traveling public. Or will the perception of airport security become a more frequent punch line for late night comedians and seasoned travelers as elements of that process are rented out for corporate advertising? Will bidding wars erupt between companies looking for exposure at screening checkpoints, or will airport authorities (or the TSA) have a rate card like the ones used by newspapers to sell advertising space?
Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves if our fellow citizens and visitors to the United States will begin to look cynically at our airport security procedures as just another vehicle to pitch cell phones, soda and cars — like broadcast television. I can guarantee potential attackers are continuously assessing our security posture, and perceptions can become reality. Let’s keep it professional.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and is the author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. If you have a comment or question for him, please e-mail John