Security or privacy: You decide

Following a failed attempt by a Nigerian to ignite an explosive device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight as it prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas Day (the suspect had hidden the device in his underpants), the United States has gone ahead to implement the scanners that can see beneath clothing.

People opposing the initiative have labeled the technology as an abominable, virtual strip search.

Opinion is divided among airport authorities.

Britain, France and the Netherlands support the US initiative. But other European nations are not rushing into it. Spain has expressed skepticism. Germany thinks rules on flight safety need to be changed before implementing the scanners. Many are concerned about the intrusion of privacy – which has become the battle cry of civil rights groups – and possible health hazards.

Canada may allow passengers to opt for either the scanning or a pat down.

Airports in other parts of the world by and large are non-committal at this stage.

It should be simple enough, one would have thought. Security or privacy, you decide. Yet it is not.
Of more concern should be the issue of security implementation in its entirety. Full-body X-ray scanners, which are not exactly new, are just another allegedly improved measure of detecting hidden subversive devices. The question is: why wait till an “underpants” bomber threatened to blow up a plane?

It would seem irresponsible of any government not to do something following such an incident, though not so much to send a message to would-be terrorists that security measures are being tightened as to shore up travellers’ confidence that air travel has become safer as well as public confidence in an administration that quickly reacts to take control of the situation.

Hard-core terrorists will continue to look for ways to circumvent the system. It may not be the stuff of movies when suicide bombers have explosive devices implanted in their bodies. What next then? Already we are amused by cartoons in the media of air travellers stripped down to their underclothes being rolled through scanners on the conveyor, just like their luggage.

Quite naturally we are always quick to consider what else we can do but it would be a mistake to not consider possible lapses in current practice.

In the case of the Nigerian “underpants” bomber, prior critical knowledge about the terrorist was not shared with the relevant parties. His name appeared in the US database of suspected terrorists, yet he was not subject to more stringent security screening. He went through security checks undetected not only in Lagos where he started his journey but also at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam where he changed planes.

Would a pat down have detected the explosive device hidden in his underpants? Technically it should expose him, yet there is a possibility however remote that the security personnel could miss it.

There have been other reports of unauthorized entry into secured areas under the very eyes of security personnel at exit checkpoints and of travelers equipped with explosives or dangerous weapons escaping the attention of screeners. Such occurrences may be few, but even one incident is too many and can spell a major disaster.

How to reduce human error will continue to be a mammoth challenge. This is aggravated by complacency as the fear of a threat recedes, as when the 911 debacle of 2001 becomes ancient history. So too, in a matter of time, will a seeming improved security environment provide the expedience of putting the scanner on the back burner? Nonetheless, even with full-body X-ray scanners, there is no guarantee the screeners will not slip. This does not suggest that the device should not be introduced, but if implemented how best it can be done.

Inevitably this raises more urgent concerns about the quality of the handling staff. At many airports, security personnel continue to rank low in the job strata. Expressed privacy concerns of full-body X-ray scanners are just another reason to reassess the professionalism of airport security staff, and in this case, can they be to earn the kind of trust that we generally have in doctors and nurses?

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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