Security alternatives to the use of airport body scanning equipment

Posted By: admin

Published to Security Issues on May 08, 2013

Since their widespread adoption following the media frenzy surrounding the "underwear bomber" and the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day 2009, there has been very little debate on the implementation and use of body scanning equipment at airports despite opposition from many quarters.

Privacy concerns, health risks and questions surrounding their effectiveness have all been voiced and with very real substance behind them. No prolonged or sustained dialogue has been entered into between the Government and its various agencies, scanner manufacturers, the airports and the public to effectively address the very real and worrying concerns that the use of this technology represents. Any debate is immediately corralled off and quarantined through repeated assurances of their safety, by quoting statements from Government health spokespeople, and continually re-iterating the need for enhanced security by playing up, however subtly (or not), the threat of terrorism.

Yet, as research and evidence continues to mount of the doubtful effectiveness of this security measure and the very likely harmful effects of repeated exposure to the radiation emitted from them we are told, nonetheless, that these represent the best available security measure to detect and prevent potential terrorists.

Is this true though?

Are we being told the full story when it comes to such security measures?

Are there available alternatives to using full body scanning equipment that provide equal or better detection of potential security threats? Are there security alternatives that, in addition to detecting threats, provide little or no tangible health risks to passengers undergoing such procedures? Could there be detection equipment or strategies that would minimise any privacy concerns compared to the current methods that are in use?

Yes, quite a few actually.

Let's take a look at these alternative measures and their various pros and cons.

Explosives trace detection

As the name implies Explosive Trace Detection(ETD) are devices that are used to detect explosives at trace levels through the use of vapor or particle analysis or both. The most sensitive devices can detect explosive matter in terms of parts per quadrillion. For the uninformed out there a quadrillion is the following: 1,000,000,000,000,000. That's 1 with 15 zeros trailing behind.

That makes for pretty impressive detection capability, even more so when the false alarm rate of such equipment is generally very low (depending on the type of devices and what published studies you read).

ETD's come in a variety of types:

  • Ion-mobile spectrometry - possess a detection sensitivity of parts per trillion although their use of radioactive materials poses a significant challenge to the handler in ensuring that the machines are properly calibrated, free from defect and regularly checked to ensure no safety risks arise
  • Thermo redox - possesses a sensitivity detection that is extremely low and presents a high false alarm rate as a result
  • Chemiluminescence - Low sensitivity
  • Amplifying fluorescent polymer - High sensitivity in the range of parts per quadrillion

ETD's, depending on the type of device used, offer mixed results. The Ion-mobile spectrometry and Amplifying fluorescent polymer offer possibly the best detection methods currently available with this approach. Airports in the US that used trace explosives-trace-detection portal machines, sometimes called puffer machines, began relying on them less and less as a primary screening device citing maintenance problems and performance issues as reasons for their decision. An argument can be made here that with the subsequent increases in technological improvements and a genuine commitment to invest by the government in upgrading existing machines would make this approach far more effective than relying on full body scanners whose touted security benefits are far more open to question.

Metal detectors

High sensitivity for detecting anything metallic which makes them perfect for detecting any such material. However they cannot detect ceramic blades, explosives or liquids.

Pat downs

Can detect objects concealed on a person's body that might not be able to be detected through the previous 2 methods (non - metallic weapons or illegal contraband for example) but can be deemed invasive when probing certain areas of the body with the possible consequence of accusations of sexual assault and potential legal action.

Canine units

High detection reliability for explosives and contraband although do require frequent breaks. Far less invasive, no appreciable health risks and 100% mobile compared to radiation based scanners. Cost of training dogs and handlers has been cited as a significant impediment to their usage compared to full body scanner devices.

If viewed as related elements of a more integrated security approach and NOT as a one - size fits all solution the above listed alternatives would offer tangibly more benefits to airport security than a reliance on full body scanning equipment whose privacy, health and security concerns have been called into question many times over.

So why aren't such measures being implemented when the following are able to be answered in the affirmative:

  • Requires less financial expenditure, either short - term or long-term, when compared to full body scanning devices (particularly when one considers the costs involved in purchasing and installing said devices - often more than one for the same location, training multiple agents to be based at and operate each separate machine, maintenance and repair costs not to mention potential costs arising from possible associated health risks and legal enquiries as demonstrated here and here)
  • Offers zero or reduced health risks in comparison to full body scanners (please see this article for further information)
  • Less intrusive (other than enhanced pat downs)
  • More accurate detection of potential security threats such as explosives (particularly in the case of canines and particular types of ETD's)

Could the reasons for their non mass adoption range not so much from questions surrounding their effectiveness (which by and large are quashed in comparison to full body scanning devices) but instead due to the influence of lobbyists and the political machinery so heavily invested in the continued use of x-ray and/or millimeter wave based scanners?

In closing, no one solution to security exists and ultimately even the most reliable procedures are only as effective as the people implementing them. Isn't it about time we re-thought the use of full body scanning equipment in favour of a more balanced, layered approach to security that uses more effective detection mechanisms without the accompanying risks? After all the appearance of security that may be offered by the current approach is no guarantee of actual security, particularly with reports of the numerous flaws and failures that continue to surface.


Tags: airport, Security

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