Scanners: Connecting the Dots
© 2009 FrontLine Security (Vol 4, No 4)

While the term “War on Terror” has been causing “political correctness” controversies of late, the situation needs to be defined, if only to have all parties on the same page. If it’s not a war, then what is it? Because these terror tactics will not stop, it is in some respects far worse than a conventional war, as we all know too well. We thought we had the air transport security threat under control – then along comes the “Underpants Bomber,” who, almost completely and ­single-handedly, wrecked the calm of our holiday season.

On 5 January 2010, in response to this near catastrophe over our airspace, Canada announced that 44 full-body screening machines; with a price tag of $250,000 each, would comprise Canada’s response to the near destruction of Flight 253. Some will question whether the $11-million fix will reassure the travelling public, and  instill some confidence in travel safety measures.

New Threats vs. New Technology
The new technology for full body scanning, described in the information with Minister John Baird’s Press Release, sounds thorough enough: “The technology detects “anomalies” on a passenger, including metals and non-metals of all types, sizes and shapes; ceramic type threats such as knives and sharp instruments; liquids of all types; and explosives of all types.” 

The good guys are finally putting some money on the table, but it goes without saying that terrorists (can we still use that term?) will simultaneously focus their resources on finding ways to thwart this new technology. A quick web search will find a video of a “modern binary explosive” bomb where an undetectable substance the size of a match head could blow a passenger aircraft to smithereens. Post 9/11 screening technology (at what cost?) did not stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and post-Underwear’s full body imaging technology, alone, will not prevent the next radicalized person from carrying and successfully detonating a modern binary explosive on an aircraft.

Yet, it now appears that 100 percent of Canadian travellers bound for the United States will be subjected to secondary screening. This means that, because this screening process will take a minute or so, it is possible that airline travel from Canada to the U.S. may grind to a halt – even if we are not one of the 14 countries on the special watch list created by the United States. So, while this may not unearth the truly stealthy terrorist bent on defeating new screening systems, it will doubtlessly create a lot of angry businessmen and vacationing travellers.

In an interview with the CBC, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Canadians “may arrive at different conclusions” than the Americans on determining security requirements for U.S.-bound travellers. Huh? Why can’t we all agree on the basics? It has been shown, in other countries, that security measures must focus on detecting the human link – the potential terrorist – and not primarily on finding a weapon; the efficient dissemination and collation of all sources of intelligence are vital to doing this.

President Obama called the situation a massive breakdown in intelligence, and is now determined to get it right. Undoubtedly, he’s been assessing Israel’s security which has long understood that it’s virtually useless to conduct security checks at international airports where the focus is on finding explosives or weapons. For the Israeli buck, concentration on identifying terrorists will bring far better and measureable returns that are far less disruptive to legitimate travel in terms of public safety.

Israel uses extensive technology, but it puts more emphasis on passenger profiling and behavioural analysis. Also, checkpoints and questioning begin outside airports. Over time, according to the Israelis, people just get used to some privacy intrusion on the intelligence side. As with all serious matters in this world, the limit of one’s personal rights and privacy must be balanced with the risks that these very rights impose upon the safety and security of others… like shooting arrows in the woods.

Common Sense Should Prevail
It was encouraging a few years ago to see the airports in the U.S. and Canada introduce the NEXUS program. Integrating identification technology with relatively extensive personal background checks made the cross ­border air travel experience less frustrating for both the frequent traveller, and security personnel could focus on the ‘unknown’ potential in the other lines. Consumer confidence may regenerate through expanding the program to include more travelers.

The recent case at the Ottawa International Airport, where an 85-year-old woman was reportedly required to unzip her pants so a security officer could poke her abdomen for potential threats, serves to underline the need for a greater emphasis on logic and profiling rather than blind adherance to search numbers.

We will still need to train quality personnel in behavioural observation to screen effectively, and the proper collation and assessment of good intelligence to identify the terrorists is critical… however, all is for naught if we do not act on it.

© FrontLine Security 2009