Welcome to being searched on the subway

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The New York Police are going to start "randomly" searching people's bags on the subway. [*].
At some of the busiest of the city's 468 stations, riders will be asked to open their bags for a visual check before they go through the turnstiles. Those who refuse will not be permitted to bring the package into the subway but will be able to leave the station without further questioning, officials said.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly promised "a systematized approach" in the searches and said the basis for selecting riders for the checks would not be race, ethnicity or religion. The New York Civil Liberties Union questioned the legality of the searches, however, and Mr. Kelly said department lawyers were researching the legal implications.

"Every certain number of people will be checked," Mr. Kelly said. "We'll give some very specific and detailed instructions to our officers as to how to do this in accordance with the law and the Constitution."


Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, said, "Obviously we're going to use common sense for someone that appears to be an imminent threat." For example, he said, if a passenger with a large package had both fists clenched, police officers would be justified in searching him. Anyone found to be holding illegal drugs or weapons is subject to arrest, he said.

A few observations here:

  • I really hope that they're not going to search every nth passenger. If so, it would be fairly easy to detect and circumvent.
  • If you're only going to search a small fraction of people coming into the subway and they can simply refuses to be searched and go to another station, this isn't really going to be much of a disincentive to terrorists, who can just go to another station and then take the train over to their target--assuming they have a specific one.
  • Subways have certainly been a popular target, but they're not unique. Car bombs are also a popular terrorist technique. Is the next step to be random searches of people's cars? This rather seems like an example of fighting the last war.
  • As with so many of these programs, the police can't seem to stop themselves from using this as a generic law enforcement scheme. Aside from the obvious civil liberties issues, it's going to make a lot more people resistant to being searched, just because they're carrying some non-explosive contraband. If you're depending on voluntary compliance by citizens to help you detect terrorists, it doesn't seem like a good idea to deliberately discourage compliance by people who aren't terrorists.

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Wow...between that and the renewel of the Patriot act (or at least large chunks of it), it's been a great morning for civil liberties.


Just how do you wish them to go about making the subways safer?

Grumpy, maybe it's time to take the Naked Airlines meme underground? (The link is not safe for work and not at all titillating, at least to Skippy's taste).

Seriously, either search all bags going in (as they do in most sports stadia these days), search only people for whom you have probable cause, or protect the lines with "sniffer" technology, a.k.a. bomb dogs. The key to all of those is that the prejudice factor is largely removed. The first is the clearest, since everyone is equally inconvenienced; the second relies on there already being a known set of tests for probable cause (although prejudicial application does happen, there are also known remedies). The third relies on the handlers not imparting their prejudices to the dogs (knowingly or not), but it has a shot if you mix the handlers and dogs relatively frequently.

Is it more expensive to do any of these? Yep. Is any of it worth while? -Answer left as exercise for reader.


What makes you think that this is a solvable problem?

As an FYI, this topic is also discussed at length in the comments to one of Bruce Schneier's blog entries today.

(It's a good thing that Ricin can only be carried in something as large as a backpack.)

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