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Much ado about airport security

Posted By on January 22, 2013 @ 11:04

Airport security at play

If you were lucky enough to be flying internationally from Australia these holidays, you might have sampled the new body scanners that are supplementing the already considerable array of security measures surrounding our aviation industry. You now are confronted with metal detectors, police, explosives detection, restrictions on liquids and pointy objects, sniffer dogs, posters, and security barriers, among myriad others—as well as the behind the scenes intelligence work going on. The new machines are intended to spot items underneath clothing, providing the operator with an indication of where the item is located.

The use of these machines raises a variety of concerns; effectiveness, safety, and privacy amongst them. But before we begin to consider these concerns we should be asking ourselves, are these machines really necessary? And what are they actually for?

To the Australian Government’s credit, it has reportedly implemented better privacy controls than its American counterpart, including limiting the image provided to a stick figure, rather than the detailed images that have been controversial in the US. Such images have proven so contentious that TSA announced last Friday they would begin phasing out the scanners used to produce them. The government has also assured us all that no information will be stored, though such promises have fallen through in other countries before.

The government has stated that the body scanners will provide ‘an additional layer of aviation security’, presumably against terrorists. While this might be the case, it's a bit of a stretch to think that this will provide much of a gain to the security of the aviation industry. As security technologist (yes, there is such a job description) Bruce Schneier put it;
A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids. We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn’t have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces—the level of magical thinking here is amazing—and they’re going to do something else.

Beyond a certain point, piling additional ‘layers of aviation security’ on top of each is pointless.

As Amanda Vanstone said in her infamous 2005 Rotary Club speech:
… [has it] ever occurred to you that you just smash your wine glass and jump at someone, grab the top of their head and put it to their carotid artery and ask anything? And believe me, you will have their attention … I asked (Mr Howard) if he was able to get on a plane with an HB pencil, which you are able to, and I asked him if I went down and came and grabbed him by the front of the head and stabbed the pencil into your eyeball and wiggle it around down to your brain area, do you think you'd be focusing?

As she said, 'a lot of what we do is to make people feel better as opposed to actually achieve an outcome'. Such sentiments have been raised on more than one occasion in Australia. A previous ASPI publication on air security and counterterrorism by Mark Stewart examined the probable threat required before the Air Safety Officer program would provide a net benefit to society. It turns out that the bar is quite high.

In essence, these machines aren't about providing additional security, but instead are little more than an exercise in security theatre. The new body scanners—much like a lot of the security measures that have been introduced since 2001—aren't intended to provide us with any additional security. Rather, they're intended to provide the illusion of doing something while actually achieving relatively little.

Chris Louie is currently undertaking ASPI’s internship program. Image courtesy of Flickr user nedrichards.

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[1] Image: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/56919158_9c178af382_z.jpeg

[2] reportedly implemented better privacy controls than its American counterpart: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/travel-news/grated-scanners-for-travellers-20110326-1cavi.html

[3] image provided to a stick figure: http://travelsecure.infrastructure.gov.au/bodyscanners/index.aspx

[4] phasing out the scanners: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/01/tsa-abandons-nude-scanners/

[5] fallen through in other countries: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/11/rapiscan-fraudulent-tests/

[6] Bruce Schneier put it: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/11/22/do-body-scanners-make-us-safer/a-waste-of-money-and-time

[7] infamous 2005 Rotary Club speech: http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/vanstones-terror-speech-under-fire/2005/11/20/1132421545901.html

[8] have been raised: http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2011/08/04/Albanese-reveals-our-mad-security-culture.aspx

[9] more than one occasion: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/airport-police-are-just-for-show/story-e6freon6-1226294310591

[10] A previous ASPI publication: http://www.aspi.org.au/publications/publication_details.aspx?ContentID=190

[11] nedrichards: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nedrichards/56919158/