Sunday, January 03, 2010

Scanners or Profiles?

The attempt to detonate a bomb concealed in the underwear of a passenger on a flight to the US as it was passing through Canadian airspace has caused a new wave of security measures for flights into the US from world-wide destinations. Airport security staff now routinely pat down passengers and there is talk of the deployment of full body scanners. These measures are theatre – they would not have detected the explosives carried by the would-be bomber.

The full body scanners will detect small metal objects, but will not detect plastics or liquids – the core components of the Christmas bomb. Patting a person down, particularly when it becomes a routine, is also unlikely to detect liquids in small quantities. The substance of the bomb was just three ounces of a dry powder distributed in the front of a pair of underpants. The “trigger” was a liquid held in a plastic syringe.

The measures now in place show that the response to a threat is to increase the extent of theatre in the hope that the show of deterrence will be sufficient to deter terrorists. The evidence is that the terrorists just get smarter.

There are a growing number of voices that say that the real answer here is to start profiling likely terrorists and make more effective such measures as “no fly lists” developed on the basis of profiling or past convictions. Those concerned with civil liberties will challenge such profiling as an infringement of human rights – as they are already arguing with respect to the full body scanners. The trade off’s here are best calculated in terms of preventing terrorism and enabling appropriate and efficient access to air travel.

Most security measures in place at airports are about appearances, not about the reality of preventing terrorism: the bomber passed through security at a major airport and was on a no-fly list.

No comments: