Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Airport scanning- how much is too much?

One way or another, for me to get on a plane, I need to be assured that the best attempt has been made to check my fellow passengers for weapons, malicious intent, or materials that can be used for no good.  I see folks being sniffed by beagles or going through puffer machines to detect explosives, getting the pat down by surly but not unpleasant security staff, and occasionally being asked to step aside for further questioning because of a red flag somewhere along the way.  For years we have been trolling through the standard metal detectors and until 9/11 we figured it was not enough. Since then, the US has been spending quite a bit of cash to improve the means to catch the bad guys.  We focus on the person and the carriage of harmful agents; other countries such as Israel also throw in passenger profiling.  We have a system in the works to do that too. People will be profiled to identify their risk status- none, unknown, elevated or high, and this will be achieved by more intensive questioning at the time of booking the flight.  This week, a young passenger felt his civil liberty was violated by the TSA's invitation to step into the whole body scanner where the device would digitally strip him to identify any weapons or harmful objects about his person.  The traveler was even more upset with the pat down he had to undergo as a result of refusing the scanner.  He recorded the whole episode on his cell phone and by now it is viral on YouTube and the guy has been on every talk show under the American sun.  Recording in an airport security area is an offense so it will be interesting if his fine is as widely reported.  The incident triggered a firestorm, with many Americans declaring a revolt against the perceived inhumanity of it all.  Some have vowed to refuse the scanner and furthermore to wear a kilt for maximum harassment of security personnel during the required pat down.  I wonder, really, what folks are afraid of. Which is worse- being seen 'naked' by a security guard (who will see thousands of other 'naked' forms throughout his day), or having to jump an errant passenger in-flight because they are brandishing a box cutter or conspiring with a fellow passenger to put together an explosive?

I can understand the knee-jerk reaction to being 'violated' in this way but what should we really be concerned about?  I think there are a couple of questions, 1) Does it indeed violate civil liberties; 2) is it effective; and 3) is it safe.

In my view the civil liberty issue is a bit of a non-starter.  The good of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  I'd gladly submit to the scan, lumpy thighs and all, to contribute to better safety for all passengers.  The safety issue is the more interesting to me, as well as the overall effects of using the scanners on airport dynamics and travel times.  Here is what I have found out.  On the safety side, the scanners emit very much less radiation (0.005 milllrads per scan) than normal background (300 millirads). To reach the equivalent of background radiation one would have to go through the machines over 100 times a day.  Dr Brenner from the University of Columbia fears the official reports of radiation emitted by the units is underestimated by about 20 times. Even if this is true the radiation is still far less than background.   It seems the scanners are pretty safe, even for very frequent travelers. In terms of effectiveness, they can certainly detect weapons.  Whether there is a reduction in terrorist-like events we may never know.  Most potential incidents do not reach the news. So what about the affect of using the units on travel per se? According to several reports I found the use of a scanner takes about 25 seconds whereas a traditional pat-down takes 2 minutes.  If everyone used the scanner, then transit time through security should be faster.  A person can keep coats, belts etc on too.  Overall, it seems the scanners are a positive move.  In the UK, such scanners have been in use for over a year and, after initial controversy over privacy, 95% of the public now approve. A recent blog suggested that there might also be an anti-obesity side effect.  Image conscious travelers might want to drop a few pounds before stepping into the machine. 

There are murmurings of even more advanced systems that can detect liquid explosives, as well as the aforementioned passenger profiling systems that can identify a possible high-risk passenger based on additional questions asked at check-in.  And then there are biometrics methods that determine whether the person's face or eyes matches the person it is supposed to represent.  Whole body scanning is just the beginning so we had better come to terms with it.  Or just drive.
Post a Comment