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Air-security rules creates game we can't win, a specialist says

MINNEAPOLIS -- It must say something about our times that Bruce Schneier, a geeky computer encryption specialist turned all-purpose security guru, occasionally gets recognized in public.

``My life is just plain surreal," he says.

Schneier, 43, has made it so by popping up whenever technology and regular life intersect, weighing in on everything from the uselessness of post-9/11 airport security measures to the perils of electronic voting machines and new passports with radio chips.

He does it by writing books, essays, a frequently updated blog, and an e-mail newsletter with 125,000 subscribers.

A former Pentagon and Bell Labs technologist who invented important methods of cryptography and wrote a textbook on the subject (meriting him a mention in ``The Da Vinci Code"), Schneier has testified to Congress and shared ideas with Rand Corp. researchers.

Even though he has denigrated the billions spent on airport security as almost entirely wasted, the Transportation Security Administration asked him for advice about its passenger-screening program.

``Bruce Schneier is a master of explaining security and a master of telling us why security and freedom are the same thing, why security can't ever be had at freedom's expense," says Cory Doctorow, an author and a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Schneier sees himself as a teacher dispensing clear-headed lessons in an era poisoned by irrational fears of terrorism.

``I'd like everyone to take a deep breath and listen for a minute," he wrote in a recent online essay.

His favorite topic these days is the intersection of security, economics, and psychology.

For example, Schneier blasts almost all airport screening measures as meaningless ``security theater" that makes people incorrectly believe they are safer. After all, who says the next terrorist attack will involve the methods used last time? Who says it even has to involve airplanes?

``The game of having all these tactics is one we can't win, because terrorists get to see it in advance," he says.

``By definition you're going to pick a plot we're not going to catch. It's a game we can't win. Let's stop playing it."

Instead, Schneier says the game ought to be about stopping bad people, mainly through better intelligence and police work.

That money would be much better spent, he says, than making sure that security screeners confiscate corkscrews or any other particular item from passengers.

``We can't keep weapons out of prisons; we can't hope to keep them out of airports or subways," Ervin says.

To some, Schneier's analyses are simplistic. ``I regard his views, frankly, as dangerous," says Clark Kent Ervin, a former Department of Homeland Security inspector general who says incompetence has left gaping security holes.

Schneier contends ``the threat is exaggerated and we're overreacting," says Ervin, director of the homeland security program at the Aspen Institute. ``Some people take this view seriously and, therefore, are deluded into thinking that we're safer than we are."

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