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Game Theory at the Gate

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Jul 01, '11


CNN reports that,

The Transportation Security Administration stood by its security officers Sunday after a Florida woman complained that her cancer-stricken, 95-year-old mother was patted down and forced to remove her adult diaper while going through security.

At least from what I can tell from this article, the entirety of the woman’s complaint is that an elderly woman should not be searched so thoroughly at airport security.It sounds like the search was conducted appropriately and in private, and there’s nothing to indicate that officials were rude, forceful, or needlessly degrading.

I remember that this was a standard trope in the post-9/11 debates surrounding racial profiling. Those in favor of profiling would say things like, “It’s absurd to assume that a young Arab man and an elderly Chinese woman are equally likely to be threats.”

While I do believe that there ethical and public policy arguments against racial profiling that go beyond its efficacy as a crime prevention tool, I also believe that short of searching everyone, true randomization is the only unexploitable method of searching passengers. In other words, what if al Qaeda predicts that an elderly woman is less likely to get searched and therefore recruits one to carry a bomb onto a plane? Frankly, I don’t think this would be a bad strategy on their part, and consequently the TSA should not pursue a counter-strategy that could be exploited in this way.

You could argue that even if al Qaeda wanted to pursue such a strategy, there are logistical barriers to their doing so. For instance, they have a much larger pool of young Arab men to recruit from than they do elderly white women. Because so much of their senior leadership is Arabic, they may have an easier time recruiting people similar to themselves. Statistically, an Arab man is more likely to be a Moslem than is an elderly white woman, and al Qaeda is obviously an organization that appeals primarily to Moslems. So, perhaps it makes sense for the US to pursue an exploitable searching strategy simply because they believe their opponents do not have the means to exploit it even if they wanted to.

I see quite a few problems with this line of thinking:

1. Al Qaeda and other Moslem organizations are not the only terrorist threats. The Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, was carried out by White American citizens.

2. Al Qaeda has show some ability to recruit and deploy individuals who do not fit the profile of “brown-skinned male citizen of a Middle Eastern country”. Jose Padilla, accused of trying to smuggle a “dirty bomb” into the US, was a Latino and an American citizen. Richard Reed, the alleged “shoe bomber”, was a British citizen. It isn’t clear that these men were chosen because they didn’t fit the profile, or even that they were chosen at all, but neither of those points is relevant with regard to the exploitability of US counter-terrorism policy.

3. Other opponents in the “airport security game” have been known to attempt to exploit security strategy in this way. Drug smugglers, the original targets of airport racial profiling, have used all sorts of people, from children to old women, to bring drugs into the country. Presumably this is because they were aware of what security officials were looking for and whom they were targeting.

4. It may be possible for an organization such as al Qaeda to employ an unwitting passenger as the carrier of a bomb. There’s a reason an airport official always ask you whether anyone tried to get you to carry anything for them.

I also happen to think that the US is overly concerned about security and wasting huge amounts of money on some of their anti-terrorism measures, but that’s a separate discussion. To the extent that we’re going to employ selective searching as an airport security measure, then randomization is the only unexploitable strategy. If your number is up, then you get searched, no matter what you look like. That means that sometimes Grandma’s diaper is going to need to come off.

Edit: Meant to add that, to the extent that the TSA is pursuing an exploitable strategy that is biased against searching elderly women in wheelchairs, it is great for this case to get a lot of publicity.

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer, and teacher. He is also an avid hiker and traveler and a passionate advocate for urban public education. You can find dozens of his poker strategy articles at and more information about group seminars and one-on-one coaching at

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of


11 years ago

Great post- I've never understood why those not ethically opposed to obvious racial profiling at the gate didn't understand that its just not effective anyway.

I've learned personally that if you pay cash for a ticket, or purchase a ticket last minute then you are way more likely to get the "random" SSSS on your ticket and be searched. If you buy your ticket way in advance with a credit card your chances of being searched are minimal. That seems like an easy enough pattern to exploit by anyone who doesn't want to be searched.


11 years ago

For a terrorist to focus on airliners at this point would seem to be rather stupid. Aren't there countless "softer" targets that could be focused on? ( Just playing devils advocate here so don't anyone get the wrong idea).


11 years ago

Where terror is concerned all possibilities are on the table all the time. If they can take us down by a thousand cuts they will be just as satisfied as if they destroyed us by dropping nukes in our midst.


11 years ago

Most Bosnians, Kosovars and Chechnyans are as white as any Ku Klux Klansman. Racial profiling alone will not prevent attacks. The solution is to adopt the Israeli strategy which is to look for bombers, not bombs.


almost 11 years ago

VERY ODD you would use the spelling "Moslem", as it usually is found in articles that are anti-muslim


almost 11 years ago

What you fail to address is that more people die in America every year from peanut allergies then acts of terrorism. Not only does the TSA NOT screen for peanut products, the airlines actually supply these items for snacks on the plane.

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