The Debate Over Airport Security

The Debate Over Airport Security

New screening measures at U.S. airports are being called overly intrusive by some passengers and civil rights groups. National security experts advise using a system that relies more on intelligence, behavioral profiling, and empowering passengers.

December 22, 2010 9:15 am (EST)

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Since 9/11, five attempted terrorist attacks on U.S. airliners and airports have made airport security a continued priority. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (PDF), which created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and put  federal employees in charge of airport security screening.

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Billions of dollars have been spent to enhance security measures over the last nine years and, as this backgrounder on aviation security notes, the TSA has implemented a host of screening procedures for passengers and their baggage, including metal detectors for passengers, x-ray screening for carry-on bags, and a screening for explosives in checked baggage. Under the Secure Flight program, the TSA also prescreens passengers by comparing the passengers’ names submitted by airlines to a watch-list. But security measures implemented by the TSA in 2010, which include full-body x-ray scanners and enhanced pat-downs, have enraged many passengers and civil rights groups, who see them as an invasion of privacy.

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Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, defends the scanners and the pat-downs as necessary (USAToday). She says the scanners are "safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy." But some experts say indiscriminate use of such measures is doing more harm than good. "You don’t alienate the people you are trying to protect," says national security expert and president of Washington-based independent Center for National Policy, Stephen Flynn. Some analysts, including Flynn, advocate using these new and controversial security measures selectively as secondary inspection tools on persons of suspicion as well as relying on a system that better integrates intelligence gathered on passengers, employs more rigorous questioning by officials who are better trained to exercise judgment, and empowers the public to deal with the risks.

Privacy vs. Security

After a 2009 Christmas day attempt by a Nigerian man to set off explosives sewn in his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound  plane, the TSA accelerated the deployment of full body x-ray scanners, officially known as Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, that allow officials to see through the passengers’ clothes. These scanners had previously been used on a trial basis at a small number of airports. But during November 2010, the TSA introduced these scanners at many airports around the country as a primary screening method.

So far, the TSA has deployed 385 such machines to 68 airports nationwide, and their goal is to have nearly one thousand of them by the end of 2011. Those who refuse to go through the scanners are required to submit to enhanced pat-downs. A November 2010 U.S. Congressional Research Service report says new enhanced pat-down procedures (PDF) "involve the use of the fingers and palm to search for concealed items and more detailed tactile inspection of areas higher on the thigh, in the groin area, and under women’s breasts. The procedures routinely involve touching of breasts, buttocks, and genitals."

"It goes back to a basic rule of counterinsurgency--Don’t do things in rote and predictable ways because terrorists can figure out how to evade it."-- Stephen Flynn, President, Center for National Policy.

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A growing number of passengers have expressed distress over these measures they call overly intrusive, humiliating, and an invasion of privacy. Following their widespread deployment, the American Civil Liberties Union received over 900 complaints from travelers during the month of November. Several public interest groups have protested the TSA’s new measures; We Won’t Fly urges the public to use alternative transportation modes until the pat-downs and scanners are suspended. Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit against the TSA to demand suspension of the scanners. Some members of Congress have also expressed concern. In a letter to TSA head John Pistole, the chairman of the House Committee of Homeland Security, Bennie G. Thompson, urged him to reconsider (PDF) the enhanced pat-down measures. Civil rights groups also remain skeptical about TSA’s assurances that imaging technology in airports cannot store, export, print, or transmit images created by full-body scanners,

But some recent polling suggests most people support using scanners in the interest of national security. In a November poll by ABC News/Washington Post, 64 percent supported the use of scanners but 50 percent said that enhanced pat-downs went too far. Another poll, by Gallup/USA Today, also found majority support for the scanners but 57 percent said they were bothered by enhanced pat-downs. Several top U.S. officials including President Obama have also spoken out in defense of the security measures (Reuters), calling them necessary to thwart a potential terrorist threat.

Security or Security Theater?

Questions remain over the scanners’ effectiveness. A March 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said "it remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected (PDF) the weapon used in the December 2009 incident," referring to the accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Also, the machines can’t detect anything hidden inside body cavities, making them far from foolproof when it comes to detection of hidden explosives. "Drug traffickers transport their illicit cargo (NYTBlog) through internal carries, so it is only a matter of time before the aviation industry is targeted in such a manner," says Philip Baum, managing director of Green Light Limited, a London-based aviation security training and consultancy company. He writes customs authorities are much better than airport security officials at identifying suspects even though they screen a very small percentage of arriving passengers and some of those processes and technologies should be deployed to "identify threat passengers before they board."

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The GAO report also notes that the "TSA continues to face challenges in several areas, such as assessing risk and evaluating worker screening methods." Air cargo security too, remains vulnerable, as evidenced in October 2010 when two shipments containing explosives sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago were intercepted on cargo planes in the UK and Dubai. A December 2010 report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service notes challenges remain in protecting air cargo (PDF). While all domestic air cargo now undergoes physical screening, the report says, 100 percent screening of inbound international cargo shipments carried on passenger airplanes may not be achieved until August 2013.

Some critics dub TSA’s security measures "security theater," saying it is focused on the last terrorist attack while ignoring threats of future attacks. They note, for instance, how a failed shoe-bomb plot in December 2001 prompted the requirement that passengers take off their shoes for screening. Restrictions on liquids in carry-on bags followed a 2006 plot to blow up planes, and the case of the underwear bomber in 2009 resulted in enhance pat-downs and accelerated the installation of scanners. Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, writes: "We pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense (NYTBlog) and pick an attack designed to get around it. Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we get it wrong, we’ve wasted our money."

But not everyone agrees. Arnold Barnett, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, says "there is nothing wrong with acting in retrospect (NYTBlog) to close a security loophole that nearly caused a disaster and could well do so if exploited even one time."

Evaluating Health Risks

Critics of the scanners also question health risks to passengers from too much radiation. The TSA claims AIT is safe for all passengers (PDF) including pregnant women and children, and has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institute for Standards and Technology, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. But several scientists have expressed concerns about potential health risks, especially in case of a machine malfunction. In April, a group of professors at the University of California, San Francisco, sent a letter to the Obama administration calling for an independent evaluation of the scanners (PDF).

Conflict of Interest?

"The truth is that exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers they need to fight back." Bruce Schneier.

Experts worry about a possible nexus between national security experts, industry, and government that has led to the rapid deployment of the scanners. Susan Stellin reports in the New York Times that the committee that developed the guidelines for the X-ray scanners had representatives from the companies that make the machines and the Department of Homeland Security, among others. "In other words, the machines passed a test developed, in part, by the companies that manufacture them and the government agency that wants to use them," she writes. Scott Horton, a fellow at the Nation Institute and an expert on legal policy and national security issues, also expresses concerns about lack of transparency and a certain "level of corruption" in how the industry lobbies the government to peddle new technology that earns the companies the big bucks.

Media reports have highlighted how companies with multimillion-dollar contracts (USAToday) to supply U.S. airports with the new x-ray scanners hired several high-profile former government officials to lobby for them. Most prominent of these has been former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff (BostonGlobe) who has long been an advocate of the full-body scanners for airports. Last year Rapiscan Systems, a company that makes these scanners, hired Chertoff’s security consulting company. Rapsican has won $41.2 million in government contracts.

Best Practices

Some experts point to Israel and the UK for best practices in airport security. Israel relies heavily on what analysts call "behavioral profiling (TheStar)," in which officers at airports ask questions or scrutinize people to see how they behave. Passengers exhibiting suspicious behavior are then pulled aside for targeted interrogation and search. Baum writes: "Profiling techniques are used at airports by every other security agency with great success. It can help determine, intelligently, which technology to use on which passenger." Most experts advocate full-body x-ray scanners or pat-downs as secondary screening tools to be used on passengers that arouse suspicion.

Still, profiling is a politically loaded word (NYTBlog) in the United States, and experts stand deeply divided on the issue. Horton pushes for profiling that focuses on relevant data-gathering such as how a passenger bought his/her ticket, their past travels, their recent actions, and so on. "A very complex sophisticated profiling program is one of the most effective measures you could use and should be used," he stresses. Flynn also advocates behavioral profiling. "People’s behavior is a much better indicator" of their intentions. He warns against a system that relies on a single protocol: "It goes back to a basic rule of counterinsurgency: Don’t do things in rote and predictable ways, because terrorists can figure out how to evade it." He recommends greater emphasis on training of airport security officials and for them to be able to tailor inspections based on professional judgment.

TSA’s administrator Pistole says the agency already has several thousand behavioral detection officers at airports. "I especially like when we do what we call ’plays.’ We have a canine team walk through a terminal with plainclothes behavior detection officers following, to see how people respond to the canine team," he said in an Atlantic interview.

Some experts say the Israeli model won’t work in the United States (USAToday), because of the huge volume of air traffic in U.S. airports, among other things. Of the world’s ten busiest airports by passenger traffic, five are in the United States.

Earlier this year, the TSA also launched a campaign "If You See Something, Say Something" to raise public awareness of threats and emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity. This might be a step in the right direction as a growing number of experts call for empowering the public to deal with the risks. This is "a much different approach than when it relies exclusively on essentially technology and professional protectors and assumes everyone is passively submitting to this regime, says Flynn. "The truth is that exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers they need to fight back (Atlantic)," writes Schneier.


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