Magic bullets?

Posted By: admin

Published to Security Issues on Oct 01, 2010

Political leaders on both sides of the atlantic were adamant in their support for the use of airport body scanning equipment in the days following the event. President Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to acquire $1 billion of advanced screening technology which includes full body scanners. Gordon Brown vowed that the Government would do everything in its power to tighten security and prevent a repeat of the US attack, giving the green light for full body scanners to be introduced at British airports.

In the media frenzy surrounding the failed underwear bomber attempt very few people were openly asking a very simple question. Do they even work?

Does the job?

Ironically there’s no evidence that the scanners are even fit for the very reasons they were introduced. Tory MP Ben Wallace has warned that airport body scanners would be unlikely to detect the different types of explosive devices used by terrorists.

Wallace, a former overseas director for defence firm Qinetiq, one of the companies involved in developing the scanner technology, went on to say that the technology probably wouldn't have detected the following:

  • The liquid explosive used by Abdulmutallab on Flight 253 from Schiphol airport
  • The Heathrow 2006 liquid bomb plot
  • The explosives used in the 7/7 London bomb attacks

Hardly a ringing endorsement for a technology that is supposed to keep us safe, but there’s more.

Another myth bits the dust

Dr Kenneth G. Furton, a professor of Chemistry at the International Forensic Research Institute, Florida International University is reported as saying, "There is extensive research reinforcing the proven ability of detector dogs to detect explosives without the intrusive privacy issues involved in full body scanning. It is not certain that even with a high resolution image of a traveler’s groin region that a half cup of explosive powder would be detectable."

Rafi Sela, a security consultant at Ben Gurion International airport told MPs in the house of Commons, “I don’t know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. That’s why we haven’t put them in our airports.”

Respected security technologist Bruce Schneier states that body scanners aren’t only a dumb idea, they don’t actually work.

A German TV clip even demonstrates how ineffective the scanners are as the system failed to detect thermite and various plastics/liquids concealed on the subject’s body. Thermite, as some people might know, is a composite metal powder and oxide which, when lit, can burn up to extremely high temperatures, be difficult to extinguish and emits dangerous ultra-violet light during the reaction. Just the kind of substance you want someone to bring on a plane.

So, there you have it. Many different and respected voices all saying the same thing: airport body scanner technology just isn’t effective. But in an age where extreme paranoia is ridden hard by commercial and political opportunists what room is there for good judgement and common sense to prevail?


Tags: Abdulmutallab, airportsecurity, Heathrow, Schiphol, terrorism, Thermite

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