TSA’s Flawed, Fixable Approach to Airport Security

Airport Security Lines

This holiday season, more and more people have expressed disapproval towards the Transportation Security Administration’s increasingly invasive body scanning procedures. Investigations have shown that x-ray images the TSA claims to be instantly deleted upon inspection have been found to be saved, and in some cases, leaked to the public. In the face of this public outcry, questions have been raised as to what the US government can do to ensure safety without invading privacy.

The TSA claims that “advanced imaging technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image, and the image is automatically deleted from the system after it is cleared by the remotely located security officer.” In reality, U.S. Marshals in a Florida Federal courthouse saved 35,000 scanned images of public servants and private citizens, some of which have even been leaked to the public.

The fact that we can see these images today almost guarantees that others will be seeing similar images in the future; especially as the agency plans on replacing all of the metal detectors in use now with these advanced body scanners.

Aside from the invasion of privacy concerns, there is also the health risk that these scanners can cause cancer by exposing travelers and the flight crew to excessive radiation.

“Requiring pilots to go through the Advanced Imaging Technology [machines] means additional radiation exposure,” Allied Pilots Association President Dave Bates writes to his members. He recommends that pilots avoid the body scanners.

Arizona State University Physics Professor Peter Rez agrees that the scanners are dangerous and potentially cause cancer.

“It’s a 1-in-20-million chance of dying from radiation for each scan,” Rez says. “Your chances of being struck by lightning in the US in any year is 1 in 500,000. But the probability of being blown up in an airplane by a terrorist is around 1 in 30 million. So the risk from the scan is about the same as the thing you’re trying to prevent.”

The result, maintains Dr. David Brenner, head of the Center of Radiology at Columbia University, is that “you will end up with some number of cancers coming out of each year’s scanning operations.” Applying it to the 125,000 commercial airline pilots and perhaps 125,000 other flight personnel, each averaging 250 scans per year. Brenner estimates “there might be five cancers, or two fatal cancers, resulting from a year’s worth of x-ray screening” among airline personnel.

Some experts believe that the way around these concerns is that the US should take on Israel’s approach to security, which deals with far greater terror threat with far less inconvenience.

Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport,  Israel’s largest transportation hub, faces dozens of potential threats each day, but has not been breached since 2002, when a passenger mistakenly carried a handgun onto a flight.

Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy, says the surest way to protect against terror threats is to watch the behavior of passengers more than what they are wearing or carrying.

“The first thing you do is to look at who is coming into your airport,” Sela says.

There are about four different layers of security that a passenger must go through before they even get into Tel Aviv’s airport. The first three are fairly non-invasive, as highly trained specialists ask passengers some basic questions like “how are you?” and “where are you coming from?”. The idea here is not to get the answers from the questions, but to see if the passenger is showing signs of distress or suspicion.

“To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old. It’s just his behavior. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I’m doing this?” Sela asks.

Right before entering the airport, some passengers are pulled aside at random and checked for large or suspicious metals. Once they enter the airport there is a check-in desk where a trained interviewer takes their passport and ticket. They ask a series of questions like “who packed your luggage?” and “has it left your side?”. Once again, the main purpose here is to look for signs of trouble or nervousness.

“The whole time, they are looking into your eyes – which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds,” Sela says.

At the check-in desk,the luggage is scanned immediately in a specifically designed, bomb-proof area. Sela plays devil’s advocate by asking, “what if you have escaped the attention of the first four layers of security, and now try to pass a bag with a bomb in it?”

“I once put this question to Jacques Duchesneau [the former head of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority]: say there is a bag with Play-Doh in it and two pens stuck in the Play-Doh. That is ‘Bombs 101′ to a screener. I asked Ducheneau, ‘What would you do?’ And he said, ‘Evacuate the terminal.’ And I said, ‘Oh. My. God.’”

“Take [Toronto's] Pearson Airport. Do you know how many people are in the terminal at all times? Many thousands. Let’s say I’m [attempting an evacuation] without panic – which will never happen. But let’s say this is the case. How long will it take? … Two days.”

A screener at Ben Gurion Airport has a pair of better options. First, the screening area is surrounded by contoured, blast-proof glass that can contain the detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosives. Only the few dozen people within the screening area need be removed, and only to a point a few meters away. Second, all the screening areas contain “bomb boxes.” If a screener spots a suspicious bag, he is trained to pick it up and place it in the box, which is also blast-proof. A bomb squad will arrive shortly and wheel the box away for further investigation.

“This is a very small simple example of how we can simply stop a problem that would cripple one of your airports,” Sela says.

Five security layers later you arrive at the only method which Ben Gurion Airport shares with most other airports: the body and hand-luggage check. Except here it is done completely differently than the US and Canada. It’s fast, efficient, and doesn’t have any long lines. That’s because they’re not looking for liquids, examining shoes, or giving full-body pat downs. They examine everyone’s behavior.

That’s the whole security process. The goal at Ben Gurion is to move fliers from the parking lot to the airport lounge in a maximum of 25 minutes.

Looking at the two different ways of conducting airport security, the Israeli method seems to be much less of a hassle for travelers and has proven successful, especially considering the high terrorist threat in the area. It’s contentious as to why the West doesn’t adopt these practices.

“You can easily do what we do. You don’t have to replace anything. You have to add just a little bit – technology, training. But you have to completely change the way you go about doing airport security. And that is something that the bureaucrats have a problem with. They are very well enclosed in their own concept,” Sela says.

Overall, the Israeli model of airport security seems to have merit, especially with the use of the bomb-proof rooms and containers for securing potential explosives. By studying such such models of airport security, the US can learn how to better protect its’ citizens while at the same time letting them keep their privacy by avoiding invasive and potentially unhealthy body scanners.

(Via Gizmodo, The Star,and NPR) / (Image by Karl Baron, licensed under Creative Commons)

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