Anyone who travels by air has probably marvelled at the inconsistency, mutability and sheer stupidity of some of the security procedures in place at airports.
Having personally logged more than 25,000 kilometres flying on commercial carriers in the last three weeks, I've experienced everything from (inadvertently) carrying an undetected seven-centimetre penknife in my hand luggage on a commercial flight across Australia to having a completely empty souvenir bottle taken from me while boarding a flight to the U.S.
I've also seen a group of grandmotherly-looking ladies approached at the Calgary airport and asked which of them would like to volunteer to go to the head of the security screening line for a "random search."
And every time I'm forced to remove my shoes at an airport I gives thanks that the incompetent shoe bomber, Richard Reid, stashed his explosives in his sneakers and not his shorts.
The latest ban on a whole state of matter - liquids - has pummelled duty-free stores and forced passengers to endure each others' breath minus toothpaste and mouthwash. It will probably be relaxed soon, since the rest of the world hasn't exactly jumped to follow the U.S. and the U.K. on this one.
The liquids ban is so full of loopholes that any determined terrorist could find a way to get around it.
A bogus doctor's note indicating diabetes would allow liquids in limited quantities to be carried in hand luggage. And of course, banning wet things just sets the mind off thinking about very dangerous dry things. Lots of stuff that goes boom can be disguised as baby powder. In fact, two easy-to-hide dry chemicals that shall remain nameless will, when mixed with water in the airplane washroom, give off very poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas.
So, what's really going on?
The inevitable truth, according to noted U.S. security analyst Bruce Schneier, is that we are actually seeing "security theatre - measures designed to make us feel safer, but not actually safer."
He concludes, with obvious regret, that "It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money."
Schneier has excellent technical and writing bona fides, with several books to his credit including academic tomes on cryptography and popular works such as Beyond Fear. I know him well enough to assure you that he's really a pro-technology guy. In fact, he's the founder and chief technology officer of Silicon Valley-based Counterpane Internet Security. So if this guy is skeptical about technological solutions to transportation security problems, perhaps we'd better listen up.
Then again, we've been focusing on the possible weapons instead of the passengers who carry them.
El Al, Israel's state airline, knows better. While they keep their precise security measures a secret, it's widely reported that when you're flying with them, you're under observation even before you arrive at the airport. Investigators check you out soon after you make your reservation.
El Al passengers have reported being asked if they need a rental car at their destination because the answer "someone's picking me up" can be a red flag. One even reported his claim of Jewishness was tested by the casual question, "So ... how many cups of wine do you drink at Passover?" All this makes civil libertarians shudder, but El Al does have its reasons to be cautious.
As for technological measures to detect people with evil intentions, there is the so-called "terrorist walk.”
I have it on good (Canadian) authority that a review of surveillance tapes of the 9/11 perpetrators at the airport disclosed some fairly distinctive characteristics. Let's leave it at that, because you certainly don't want to unconsciously start walking like a Jihad warrior. There is serious scientific research on this subject from Georgia Tech, by the way.
Another possibility is the voice-stress analyser, touted by the Florida-based National Institute for Truth Verification. Its website documents real cases, including brutal murders, solved by applying the system, which basically looks for micro-tremors in the human voice. These are supposedly associated with lying, though the science isn't anywhere near good enough to convince a judge.
Of course, with people already nervous at airports, we might all be put in the suspicious category.
My own personal favourite biometric for detecting baddies is facial-thermal imaging. It was, like many breakthroughs, apparently discovered by accident. During an experiment in 1999, researchers had an infrared thermal imaging camera trained on a subject when someone bumped an object off the table, causing a loud crash. The cameras detected a surge of heat around the subject's eyes, because the stress caused an influx of blood to that area.
Periorbital blood flow might be the next lie detector, and one that is almost impossible to fool. In an experiment at Fort Jackson, S.C., eight soldiers were told to stab a mannequin and take $20 from it. Twelve others were innocent of the "crime.”
The thermal imaging camera caught six of the eight "criminals" while clearing 11 of the 12 control subjects. The system is totally non-invasive, and can even be applied clandestinely.
There are all sorts of legal and privacy issues here, at least in North America. Other parts of the world have no such scruples.
I travelled in China during the SARS scare and routinely had my temperature taken remotely by an infrared camera. White coat-clad operators stood ready to grab me if I was too hot for their liking.
Some pundits say that, if the current trend continues, passengers will need to pass through security in the nude, which would at least make a trip to the airport less boring.
In fact, technology to undress you electronically already exists, and it's called millimetre wave scanning (MWS.) Made by British-based defence technology company Qinetiq, a MWS X-ray machine was tested at the Orlando airport but, as far as we know, isn't being deployed at airports (yet).
There's a lot of interesting information in blogs, including one from someone who claims to be a disgruntled Canadian airport screener who is quitting. He (or she) says the whole airport security process is "a joke."
Perhaps this is the person who took some of the 226 official CATSA items (including 91 shields and 78 shirts) that have gone missing. A reporter claims to have seen CATSA uniforms for sale on eBay. This security breach caused the agency to hire Deloitte Public Sector Industry Group to investigate, and yes, the report is available online and makes good reading.
Perhaps there's another argument for the clothes-removing X-ray machine.
It would certainly make the job of being an airport scanner a lot more interesting and perhaps attract a loyal, if perverted, class of people to that job.
And airport screeners would be at least partially compensated for all the abuse they endure from passengers. He who laughs last, laughs best.
Web Watch: www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/08
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)