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Expected increase in airport security will add to delays, but not safety

Recent attempts to bring down airliners through the use of incendiary devices has once again heightened security at airports across the world, but the efforts will do little to thwart future terror attacks, according to Indiana University Maurer School of Law Distinguished Professor Fred Cate.

Following the arrest of a Nigerian man accused of attempting to detonate an explosive on a flight into Detroit on Christmas day, federal authorities have put security screeners, airline officials, and investigators on high alert. Despite being on a government watch list and passing through layers of security checks, the 23-year-old suspect was able to board an international flight with the ingredients needed to bring down a commercial airliner.

"This case highlights two clear problems with our anti-terrorism tactics in airports," Cate said. "The fact that the suspect was reportedly on a government watch-list and allowed to board an international flight with a valid visa indicates a systemic failure in our ability to make our much-vaunted watch-list work. Second, the immediate implementation of more stringent, but ill-targeted security checks wastes valuable resources that could be more efficiently used to prevent further such attacks."

Already some travelers on international flights bound for the U.S. have reported increased travel restrictions, including the inability to have access to carry-on luggage or any object in their laps while in flight. Some airlines have begun restricting passengers from leaving their seats during the final hour of their flight.

"What's troubling is the political pressure to do something immediately, even if it's the wrong thing," Cate said. "Even after implementing stricter guidelines for passengers and increasing security measures across the board, recent incidents have shown that even the most sophisticated counterterrorism efforts are often rendered useless by the incompetence of the terrorists themselves, and by the quick-thinking actions of fellow passengers."

Cate acknowledged the difficult challenge faced by TSA officials, who are charged with guarding some 450 airports and more than 28,000 daily flights. But he encouraged federal authorities to take bold, strategic steps toward safeguarding the increasingly vulnerable air travel network.

"It's becoming ever more difficult to stay a step ahead of those who wish to do us harm," Cate said. "We need to ensure that the security measures we have in place are being properly applied. A traveler whose name appears on a government watch list should under no circumstances be able to board a flight with the same ease as a law-abiding citizen. We must make a concerted effort toward keeping such watch lists up-to-date and accessible to the agencies responsible for preventing such terrorist acts in the first place. The system is broken. We should fix it, before looking for new systems to put in place."

"As the National Academy of Sciences' committee on the use of data for terrorism prevention reported last year, we must move beyond the politically motivated urge to 'do something,' to instead focus on 'doing the right thing,'" Cate said.

Fred H. Cate is the C. Ben Dutton Professor of Law and director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. He is the president of Phi Beta Kappa and has served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technical and Privacy Dimensions of Information for Terrorism Prevention.