There's no question that the body scanners and the physical pat-downs taking place now are more intrusive, and that is provoking a reaction. The problem over the long term is that terrorists can build and conceal devices on persons in places that will make them undetectable to all but the most intrusive searches. So, it's a more intrusive measure in response to an evolution of terrorist tactics; it is a bit of fabricated theater because the vast majority of the passengers accept the measures, and it is a bit of agenda-serving by passengers' rights groups and posturing politicians that neatly come together.
Is backscatter AIT "nothing more than an electronic strip search," as it has been called by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)?
Put aside the ACLU statement, because I cannot recall in the last 15 years a single security measure at airports that they haven't opposed on grounds of the Fourth Amendment. So that's a hearty perennial. I don't mean to put them down. I honestly do believe that we do have to debate these security issues in our society as a society and decide what impositions we accept in return for what risks we are willing to take. That's a good debate, and it's a tough one.
I'm not a techie, but I have my reservations about the technology. I think that the decision to deploy the body scanners was driven primarily by a need to be seen doing something after the Abdulmutallab attempt. These machines are calibrated, and depending on the degree of calibration it is not certain in my mind that the device would have detected Abdulmutallab's bomb had he walked through a body scanner, given the quantity of the explosives he was carrying and where they were concealed. The likelihood of not detecting such a threat increases when you put measures in place to, understandably, protect personal privacy and modesty by blurring certain areas of the body, including the genitals, where Abdulmutallab was carrying the explosives.
If the TSA's latest technology does not greatly improve security, why are these machines being installed in so many airports?
The deployment of the body scanners represents a symptom of a longer term problem that we have to face. Passenger loads are increasing and so are the number of security procedures, in each case following a particular event. Following Richard Reid, the shoe bomber in 2001, we now take off our shoes. Following the Heathrow plot in 2006 [to carry explosives on board planes going to the U.S. and Canada] we now have restrictions on liquids. Following Abdulmutallab in 2009 we now have body scanners. But continually adding measures to look for objects over the long term may not be sustainable without completely degrading the screening performance. My objection to the body scanners is it was a missed opportunity. It was throwing another machine out into the airports without seizing the moment to do a fundamental review.
What improvements or alternatives are there to the current approach to air travel security?
We really need to fundamentally rethink the strategy of how we do this, and it's not an accumulation of yet another procedure or another piece of machinery. We really have to think about the issue of whether we focus our security efforts 100 percent on looking for objects or whether move toward a more discerning system that also begins to look at categories of travelers.
We board about one billion passengers in the United States per year, but that's not one billion different people. Frequent fliers account for the vast portion of total boardings. Moving some of them into a registered traveler category, where they willingly submit personal information as part of a pre-screening process, would free resources to be applied to other passengers. [The TSA concluded its two-year Registered Traveler test program at 19 airports in July 2008 but decided not to implement the program. Instead, the TSA has encouraged private sector vendors including Vigilant Solutions and FLO Corp. to provide pre-registration service in conjunction with airports and airlines. The TSA does have a prescreening program called Secure Flight that attempts to match passenger records with records of people on terrorist watch lists at the time domestic airplane tickets are purchased. Prior to Secure Flight, airlines conducted passenger watch list checking.]