The Great Midwest Corkscrew Affair

Oct. 27, 2008
McCumber asks, "Does taking a wine corkscrew through an airport constitute a national security threat?"
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I won't bother to tell you why my wife and I ended up stuck in Cleveland , OH , over the weekend. It's a long story. It was now Sunday morning. I grabbed the local newspaper placed at the door to our room and perused it while we sipped coffee and waited for our breakfast to come in the nearly empty hotel restaurant. I was surprised at what I saw.

Right on the front page was what the editors obviously felt was a major news item. The Transportation Security Administration was once again going to allow airline passengers to carry nail files and grooming scissors aboard their flights. I was pleasantly surprised. I had already had at least a dozen small scissors confiscated, since I tended to leave them in the well-traveled shaving case that goes to the gym with me every workday morning.

As I read through the article, I chuckled at the numerous quotes used to flesh out the piece. Some were from airline passengers who were concerned with the potential for lax enforcement, and another batch was from posturing politicians. It seemed no one who had flown more than once felt uncomfortable espousing an opinion.

However, my favorite bit of feedback was a blast of condemnation directed at the TSA by the flight attendants' union. They were dead set against any change in the current policy and even suggested cracking down on other potentially dangerous items they would be pleased to enumerate. From my recent travel experiences, I suspect most flight attendants would prefer the flying public be stripped to their underwear, cuffed wrist and ankle, and duct taped into their coach-class seats for the duration of every flight.

Later that day, after a fun few hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we decided to wander back to the hotel, order some room service, and enjoy the late football game. On the way back, we noticed the wine shop was closed, so we stepped into a 24-hour drug store to pick up a bottle.

As we approached the counter, a sleepy-eyed teenager in a corporate smock looked at our purchase and said he would have to get the manager to ring us up since we had, in the local parlance, AL-key-haul. I looked down at the $18 bottle of wine and suddenly felt like some desperate booze hound demanding the jug be slipped into a form-fitting paper bag.

The short delay sparked my thought processes. Since we had traveled by air, we would have to rely on the hotel to provide us a corkscrew. This would present an opportunity for the hotel to charge us a corking fee. Yes, this has happened to me before, and the fee was a princely $10. It would also allow another weekend employee to sneer and make me feel like a desperate booze hound, drinking on the Lord's Day, no less.

Since I had already caused a scene at the drugstore, I ran back up the aisle with the wine shelves and looked for a corkscrew. Sadly, the only option was a relatively pricey wind-up affair, and not one of those very basic cheap-o models. I grudgingly picked up the nine-dollar unit and went back to the counter to meet the manager and pay the bill.

The following day, my wife and I were packing to leave when I noticed the new corkscrew on the desk. I had just paid nine whole dollars for it. Even though our homes are not at a loss for corkscrews, I decided that, based on the newspaper article, I would try to get it home in the carry-on luggage. The paper stated the change would begin on December 22, and that was still three weeks in the future. But if the TSA confiscated it, we'd just give it up. We had no desire to check the two small overnight bags we had.

It was an uneventful trip to the airport with the rental car. After getting our tickets, we stood in the short security line and placed our bags on the scanner's belt. I purposefully put that bag on last, hoping to at least get my wife and my laptop through the process if they decided I looked dangerous. Sure enough, I watched as the screener called over a supervisor and pointed to something on his scanner.

The supervisor looked intently at the image on the screen, and then shot a glance at me and my wife as we hopped around putting our shoes back on. I sidled up closer to screener to avoid the necessity for him to scream out that I was transporting an illegal corkscrew, making me look like a desperate booze hound to everyone in the small airport terminal. To my surprise, the supervisor mumbled some words that contained the colloquialism “church key.” He then shrugged to the screener and gave him a look that said it was OK. I had made it.

When we were seated on the regional jet headed for Washington 's Dulles Airport , I found a copy of the previous day's paper in the seat back. I read through the TSA article again to ensure I had the date right. I did. I also noticed a couple of phrases that hadn't registered with me as I was reading it the previous day. I noticed the overuse of words like risk and threat. The writer and even some of those interviewed for the article repeatedly referred to items like grooming scissors, pen knives, and corkscrews as threats. The term security risk was also bandied about with irreverent frequency.

From my work with quantitative risk analyses, I knew that these inanimate objects were not technically threats in and of themselves. Most of us use items such as these often and wouldn't even consider them problematic under almost any circumstances. You may not want your toddler to have them as toys, but only in the wake of a horrific attack like 9/11 would our citizens consider a simple airborne corkscrew a threat to their personal safety.

When I read it through a third time, I realized something else. The most significant problem with the article was neither the sloppy use of security-related terminology nor the meaningless blathering of the pandering politicos. The missing component was an intelligent presentation of the various elements of risk. In the case of airline security, debating the carry-on trade-offs of corkscrews and pen knives without an analysis of the human actors is meaningless. Corkscrews and pen knives are only threats to the lives of people on aircraft in the hands of terrorists.

Inanimate objects are not threats. Threats fall into two basic categories: environmental and human. An environmental threat could be a hurricane or a loss of oxygen while flying at altitude. A human threat is obvious. What is not obvious is that the human threat does not have to have malicious intent. It could be a sleepy apartment dweller who drops a lit cigarette and kills several neighbors with his negligence.

Corkscrews, pen knives and grooming scissors are only a threat when they are combined with a human actor. Until 9/11, no one would have considered a box cutter a threat to the World Trade Center . In the case of potential aircraft hijackings, the threat comes not from these sundry household items, but from fanatics willing to die and take you with them to make a point.

One of the primary definitions of security is how we feel about our safety. But simply trying to implement a mix of safeguards and proscriptions to assuage such non-specific feelings is neither sound risk management nor sound public policy. In order to effectively balance the safety of our citizens with the personal rights and freedoms we Americans enjoy, we need to focus our national debate directly on those who would do us harm. Until then, leave my corkscrew out of it.


John McCumber is a security and risk professional. He is the author of Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology from Auerbach Publications. Mr. McCumber can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

John McCumber

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and 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, e-mail [email protected].