I’m writing this blog post from an airplane, on my way to Tel Aviv, Israel. I haven’t blogged for a while, the main reasons for which have been lack of time and lack of things to write about. It’s not that my life hasn’t been interesting; it’s just been filled with rather ordinary things like work, friends, and ‘hanging out’. I’ll spare you the details.
I hope that that is about to change, and I’m quite excited about my trip to Israel. It’s a kind of random destination, but the short story is that I got invited by an Israeli girl I met on the bus. I’m not one to turn down a cool invitation. I’ve never been to Israel before, and I expect the culture to be quite unlike any I’ve encountered so far.
One thing I had been warned about is that the Israeli take their security very seriously. Expecting a lengthy security check, I arrived at the airport with time to spare. I wasn’t quite prepared for the rigor of their screening procedure, though. At first everything seemed normal. I went through the baggage check as usual, sat down for a coffee, and about 80 minutes before departure proceeded through passport control to the gate. Just when I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about, they called my name over the PI at 45 minutes before departure: if I would report to the gate desk straight away.
There I was greeted by an Israeli security official, who asked me to step aside with him for a moment. It wasn’t the typical do-you-have-any-liquids-in-your-baggage type of security dummy. It was a well-dressed man in his late thirties with athletic build and a sharp look in his eyes. He had the appearance of a smarter and more sophisticated Vin Diesel. While he engaged me in some friendly conversation to put me at ease, he appeared like he could deal a lethal blow with his bare hands if the situation called for it. I think there’s a good chance he was Mossad (the Israeli secret service), or at least highly trained.
What followed was a half-hour-long interview about pretty much every aspect of my life. The questions started out reasonable enough: Why was I travelling to Israel? Did I now anyone there? Where would I be staying? Had I travelled to any Arab countries, and why? Did I keep in touch with any people from those countries? I was prepared to answer questions of this kind.
Then Vin went on to ask about my work. Not just what I did for a living (“I’m an internet entrepreneur”), but also what kind of websites I build, and even how their business model works. I should have charged him a consulting fee. Just telling him these things wasn’t enough, though. He wanted to see proof. Could I show him some of my sites? Could I prove that I actually owned them? Was there a picture of me on any of them? Would I be able to produce proof of my Dutch chamber of commerce registration. Remarkably, Vin had an iPad with him for this purpose that worked on a high speed internet connection. Neither the airport wifi nor the Hungarian mobile data connection on my phone was capable of producing such a connection.
Proof of… What?!
After the business stuff it got even more ridiculous. Did I have a family? A girlfriend? What was her name and where was she from? For how long had I known her? It got to the point where I felt like telling him: “That’s none of your business”. I wonder if I would have been within my rights to do so. I wonder if I would have been refused boarding.
The next topic of discussion was my stay in Budapest. Why was I living there? Where did I live? Did I have any proof of that? Since Hungary is part of the EU, I can move around and stay freely wherever I want within the boundaries of the Union, so there was no official document to prove my ‘legitimacy’ in Budapest. Would I show him my rental contract then? (Who carries a copy of the lease to their apartment for chrissake?! In the end it suffice to show him the email I sent my real estate agent to discuss the terms of my lease.) Did I have some pictures of my house on my phone? I showed him this picture of a plastic plant. I’m sure he learned a lot from that.
While all of this was going on, the plane had started boarding. I was getting a bit nervous whether I would even make my flight if the guy kept going. But I was not to worry, he assured me; the plane wouldn’t leave without me… if I made it through the screening procedure. After a few more minutes and the exhaustion of my business, my love life, my travels, and my friendships with Arabs and/or Muslims, he finally seemed satisfied. They would just need to quickly inspect my hand baggage, and I had to wait for them.
While another, more ordinary looking security official went off with my bag, Vin turned to his colleague, a scary bald guy that reminded me of Yul Brynner. I assumed he would just have to report his judgement and get a ‘go’ decision, but they started a lengthy discussion of my case. They spoke in Hebrew, but I recognized some names and places from my story. This wasn’t just a formality. He was getting a second opinion. Yul asked me an additional question or two (I forgot what), and after about 10 minutes gave his ‘all clear’.
When the whole procedure was over, I asked Vin two questions. What was that all about? “Security” he answered with a grin. And why did they pick me? “Perhaps your Israeli friend can tell you… if she’s allowed” was his answer. I finally boarded the plane as one of the last passengers, a bit rattled but relieved that it was over.
What’s the point?
Of course I wondered what exactly the point of that whole interview was. While some of the questions were fairly obvious, others were ridiculously far-fetched. I have a couple of theories about this.
- The random questions were just to see how I would react. I’m familiar with this trick to spot if someone is lying. Ask them something unexpected, to which they would easily be able to respond under normal circumstances. If they hesitate for too long, or start talking nonsense, you know there’s something wrong. Q: “Where did you go last night?” A: “I went to see my friend Tom” Q: “Was that intersection on 28th street still closed?” A: “Eeeuhm… –pause–… I don’t know, I took 26th instead.” Maybe he didn’t really go and see Tom.
- By asking a sufficiently complex web of interrelated questions, it becomes increasingly difficult to lie. Making up a background story about my trip would be easy enough. But making up a consistent story about my whole life would be a hell of a job. Especially if I would have to supply physical (or at least digital) proof of random elements of that story. Q: “So you’re a consultant? Can you show me some work e-mails from clients on your smartphone?” A: “Eeeuhm… I don’t take my work with me from the office.” This person is not a consultant. By having very independent and flexible work I might have made things more difficult for myself than someone with an ordinary office job.
- By grilling me for such a long time the security guy might just have been studying me to see if I would panic. If you’re up to something bad, I expect that the pressure you feel during such a long and thorough interview would be quite severe. The ‘second opinion’, the stalling until the plane was almost ready to take off, and the extra inspection of my bag (which had already cleared security) may all have been part of it. I didn’t cave, but that may only be because my background story, though unusual, was legit.
Whatever the strategy behind the screening, I think it would be hard to get through it without very thorough training and preparation. You’d have to be a trained liar, have crafted and remembered an extensive background story, and have created some ‘proof’ of your story. Even then, it wouldn’t be easy, and I’d put your odds of getting through undetected at less than 50%. Then again, you can lie as much as you want, but it’d still be next to impossible to smuggle a bomb or weapon (or drink) past the do-you-have-any-liquids-in-your-baggage dummy.