From the Porch Swing

I was running late for another flight. The traffic between my out-of-town business meeting and the airport was brutal, and the lines at the ticket kiosks were no better. I finally checked my bag, secured an aisle seat, and was now jogging to join the next queue—this one to pass through the security screeners.

My heart sank as I rounded the corner and saw a snaking file of motionless humanity filling up an area originally envisioned by some idealistic architect as a wide-open walkway of shops and services. It was now just another crowded, dirty hallway ringed with cattle chutes full of harried and despondent travelers.

As I walked toward the end of the line, I noticed a much shorter line designated by a small sign hand-printed with the words “First Class Passengers.” I rechecked my watch. The long line would ensure I missed my flight, so I boldly struck out toward the end of the shorter one. Although I was not flying first class, I am a status flyer with the airline I was using that day, and the airline issues boarding passes to frequent-flyer customers on a special gold ticket that is markedly different from the standard light blue. I had used this admittedly minor distinction to my advantage a few times in the past, and determined it was worth another try.

As the line moved forward, I quickly approached the elderly contract screener, sporting my most serious business traveler expression. She glanced at my suit, freshly shined shoes and briefcase, then asked for my ticket. As I handed it to her, her colleague working the other line asked her a question about someone’s passport. My screener quickly became distracted, and while she fumbled with the documents that were passed to her, another late-to-the-airport frequent flyer behind me vociferously expressed his annoyance that she was serving non-first-class passengers.

I turned to see a man even larger than me wearing an obviously expensive sport coat over a tight silk tee shirt and a bejeweled medallion on a gold chain large enough to secure a boat anchor. He was imposing, with a somber, dark complexion, tinted glasses and a pinky ring bigger than any college ring I own. I felt my face flush and prepared to get a verbal beating from this palooka when I noticed he was not looking at me, but at the feckless contract employee who was scrutinizing the passport from the peasants’ line. She looked up, and without a word, handed back the passport with a nod to her colleague, returned my ticket to me, and asked to see the ticket and identification of Mr. Cool.

This short delay had cleared out the people in front of me waiting to walk through the metal detector. I passed my briefcase, cell phone and pocket change through the scanner and was soon on the other side putting my shoes back on. I looked at my watch again. All the time in the world, baby. Even enough time to ask some security questions.

I asked a uniformed TSA agent nearby to identify the lead security supervisor on the shift. He pointed out a similarly attired gentleman a few feet away, and I asked to speak with him.

The TSA supervisor was polite and attentive as I explained the situation. I told him I had not been required to present my ID at any time in the ticketing or screening process. He said they should have asked for it at the ticket counter. I explained that I had used the self-service kiosk. He countered that the contract security personnel ahead of the screening area should have examined my ticket and ID. I simply mentioned she failed to do so.

I further explained I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that I was a security person, and was just curious how they would handle this bit of information. The supervisor then proceeded to pleasantly but assertively deny that this breach of protocol was in any way his fault. I assured him I was not trying to place blame, but was simply interested in how he would manage the information I was presenting. He again explained that this was not the fault of the federal employees, and if I so chose, I could complain to the airline or the contract screener. I thanked him for his time and walked toward my gate.

I am still shaking my head with incredulity. Even after I explicitly said I was simply curious how he would react to this issue, he remained in full posterior protection mode. This was a federal security supervisor. Amazing.

What I addressed was a very minor oversight by a contract employee. Had the supervisor been willing to listen, he would have learned that this was probably not a serious incident, and perhaps he would have even chided me for my petty non-complaint. In any case, he certainly didn’t act like someone who should have supervisory responsibilities with the TSA. He didn’t even hear me out before he began the backpedaling, quibbling, and blame shifting.

As I sat aboard my flight home to Washington, I mused over the sorry state of security in post-9/11 America. Even before that world-changing event, I was struck by the differences between airport security in the United States and the measures I experienced in major European airports.

When I was in Paris a few years ago, I was accosted in the waiting lounge for my connecting flight by a well-armed soldier who escorted me to a screened-off area near the gate. He asked me numerous probing questions as he completely emptied my carry-on luggage. After a solid 15 minutes of this scrutiny, he scanned me with a wand and finished with an old-fashioned pat down. I was impressed. He was serious, professional, multi-lingual, and, in my estimation, extremely effective as a deterrent to potential terrorists.

In contrast, even at airports like Boston’s Logan and Washington Dulles, many U.S. airport security personnel appear either frazzled and harassed or noticeably relaxed and whimsical. Far too few strike me as serious, trained security professionals defending my friends and neighbors against another possible savage attack. It makes one wonder: What is the security job here?

If the job is to seek out and nab potential terrorists or other threats to commercial air travel, it seems obvious to me that paid security personnel should be using their every moment on the job to perform this function. When I see uniformed security personnel trading jokes, walking in a gaggle with sodas or simply being inattentive, I have to wonder if all the effort and tax money is buying us better security.

There is a related pratfall for those of us who are charged with providing security for information resources and digital assets. After we’ve worked in this field for a time, we may feel tempted to hide behind our policies and position descriptions, causing us to lose sight of the overriding nature of our calling. It is a good idea to occasionally step back from the day-to-day challenges of the job and reassess why you were crazy enough to ask for the security job you currently perform.

A security professional is charged with the protection of corporate assets. That being the case, one of the most important jobs you have is determining precisely what assets require your oversight and where they are located. If you do not maintain such an inventory, you may find that it becomes easy to lose sight of your responsibilities. Make sure you can quickly and accurately define these assets, and you will be well on the way to becoming reoriented with your job functions.

As for the air travel security personnel, I hope they take a few minutes on every shift to scan the eyes of the hundreds of people who pass through their tedious procedures every day. These travelers are U.S. citizens, foreign visitors, immigrants, and sojourners who rely on security's professionalism, training and hard work to keep them safe when traveling. Security personnel should be reminded of this awesome responsibility every day. Somewhere along the line, I think that message has gotten lost.

John McCumber is an IT security professional and the author of Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology, the new book from Auerbach Publications. He can be reached at