Israeli airport security specialist – full body scanners are a waste of money

For years – supporters of strict airport security have pointed to the effective systems in place in Israel, and claimed that those systems would finally make the TSA a more effective organization.

Unfortunately for the government, one of the men that helped design the security programs at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport has spoken out against the implementation of full body imaging machines.

Rafi Sela told the Canadian Parliament that the machines are useless, and that he could pass through them undetected with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747.

Of course, he did not specify how to do this, but he did point out that there is a reason Israel has not invested in the machines.

The news probably won’t change the direction the TSA is taking, but it does once again make clear that the mass implementation of these very expensive scanners will not be as effective as they are hoped to be.

Mr. Sela published a very insightful article about U.S. airport security back in 2004 – and sadly, it does not appear that much has changed since then.

(Image: Getty Images)

Airport security — what works, and what does not?

With so much talk about new explosive detection equipment and the upcoming full body scanners, we decided to look into some of the current technology in place at airports around the world. What works, and what does not?

Will the future of airport security involve everyone stripping down to their underpants? Or will technology evolve to the point where computers can detect terrorists from a distance?

Metal detector

The airport metal detector is a piece of equipment that works absolutely perfectly – for finding metal. It won’t detect explosives, ceramic knives or anything else that is not metallic. And it isn’t designed for that – its sole purpose is to detect metal objects.

Anyone who has left their belt on, or had some loose change will know how sensitive these things are.

Why they don’t always work: Can only detect metal. Can’t sense explosives, ceramic blades or liquids.

The x-ray machine

At the airport, baggage is checked at two places – at the security checkpoint, and at the checked bag drop-off. These machines are pretty good. But they have a fatal flaw – they can’t detect anything without the presence of a human operator. And lets be honest – someone that has to sit in front of a monitor looking at bags move past them will never reach a 100% accuracy. Things will slip through the cracks.

Why they don’t always work: The human element is the weak spot. Unable to “sniff” for explosives.

Passenger puffer machine

The “puffer machine” was supposed to be the ultimate in airport security. You step into the machine, it blows puffs of air on you, and “smells” for explosives. It all sounds like the perfect solution. These machines were in place at several airports on a trial basis before they were all removed due to “unforeseen technical problems”.

Millions were invested in the devices, which are now probably collecting dust in a storage facility. High profile research labs are still working on better solutions, and there are several very promising technologies in the very early stages of development. Sadly, without some really serious government money, those machines won’t be at your local airport any time soon.

Why they don’t always work:
Citing “technical difficulties”, they are no longer in use at US airports.

Swab explosives detector

Anyone who has been pulled aside for a secondary search (the dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding pass” will have seen the screening expert “swab” their bag and place the sample inside an expensive looking machine. The machine sniffs for explosives, and can detect the smallest trace of stuff that can blow up a plane.

Why they don’t always work: only passengers selected for secondary screening are pulled aside for a swab detection. Easy to get a false positive.

Full body imager

The full body imager (or whole body imager / millimeter wave scanner) is supposed to be the holy grail of airport security. After the Nigerian underpants bomber was pulled off his plane, these new machines popped up in the news and within days, the first ones were being ordered for European airports.

Tests have been conducted on the machines, and there is a very big chance that the underpants bomber would not have been caught had he passed through one. Then there is of course the issue of privacy. We all want to fly on a plane without any terrorists wearing bombs wrapped around their groin, but apparently we draw the line at letting security staff stare at our naked bodies on a TV screen. To make matters worse, we were promised that none of the US based machines could store or send our images, but CNN already discovered that was was a lie.

Why they don’t always work: Only at select airports, only passengers pulled aside for secondary screening are asked to voluntarily go through the machine, possibly not 100% reliable.

Passenger no-fly lists

The super secret passenger no-fly lists collect data from several sources. It isn’t necessarily filled with the names of the worst terror suspects in the world, and the list has been proven to be terribly inaccurate. Worst of all, those people that have a name that matches something on the list have had a hell of a time getting through airport security.

The Nigerian underpants bomber was on one list of terror suspects, but apparently was not considered dangerous enough to warrant adding to the no-fly list. At the same time, 8 year old kids are stopped because their name matches someone dangerous.

Why they don’t always work:
Too much data, but not enough ways to find the bad guys.


Pat-downs have been proven to be ineffective – and for one simple reason; fear of embarrassing travelers. The underpants bomber would have successfully passed a pat-down because screening staff don’t do a comprehensive search. The only kind of search that will work, is the kind used in prisons.

You can’t find explosives attached to someones private parts if you don’t physically search that area. Is a full effective pat-down embarrassing? You bet it is. But it is a heck of a lot more effective than just waving a wand up and down your legs.

Why they don’t work: You can’t perform a full search, without performing an actual FULL search,

(Images courtesy of Flickr users Daquella Manera and jcortell – click images for direct source)

What strange things have been found on planes?

Full body scanner operators complain about “pervert” accusations

The introduction of full body scanners at the airport checkpoint has created quite a lot of controversy. Passengers are obviously worried about having to show their naked body to a random stranger, and others worry that images of young children will make their way onto pedophile networks.

Now, a new group has come forward complaining about the scanners – the security screeners themselves. The screening staff at Heathrow airport are furious that people assume they’ll get a kick out of seeing blurry images of our genitals.

One airport scanner had the following to say:

“The idea that we are going to get kicks out of seeing a blurry gray image of people’s bodies is frankly offensive. It’s about as sensible as saying the act of patting down a passenger is perverted. We are here to do a job. We have bombs and knives on our minds and that’s it.”

Honestly, I had never thought of it that way – but it still doesn’t put me at ease. Sooner or later, somewhere in the world, one screener will violate our trust, and naked photos of a celebrity or child will make their way onto the Internet.

In the US, the full body imaging equipment has been set up in a way that the security operator can not see the person standing in the imaging machine – he or she will only see their naked image. The TSA assured travelers that images can not be stored or sent, but CNN already discovered documents that prove otherwise.

Image credit: AFP/Getty Images

House passes bill limiting the use of whole body scanners

See this image on the right? Well, its the same kind of image the TSA screening staff were hoping to see of everyone passing through the airport (hopefully you were not planning on carrying a gun).

The plan ran into some opposition, and that has actually resulted in the house passing a bill limiting how they can use these full body scanners.

The plan was to use the scanners as the primary screening method at every airport. Essentially, the TSA said that the scanners would be far more efficient than the current metal detectors, and tried to justify their usage by attempting to convince us that the images would not be stored, and that screening staff would be moved into a separate room.

Still, the whole idea did not sit well with Rep. Jason Caffetz who got the idea to a vote (of course, it involved attaching the bill to another bill to get it to pass). But the result is there – 310 votes for, 118 against.

This is surely going to be a disappointment for the TSA, but probably not as big as it is for the companies that were lining up to produce the thousands of machines that would have been needed to “keep us safe”.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it still runs the risk of being killed. The whole body scanners won’t completely disappear, they will still be used as an optional system in secondary screenings, but if all works out, you won’t have to worry about some pervert in a cubicle watching your kids naked on his or her monitor.

The future at the airport involves your phone, fingers and eyes

The year is 2016, you wake on time and make your way to the airport in your battery powered car. At the UnitedDeltaContinental airlines desk you wave your phone in front of the check-in kiosk and a green light indicates that you are cleared to proceed to the security checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, an agent waves his rfid reader tag in front of the wallet in your pocket, and you stick your hand in a biometric ID reader. The agent stares at a hidden display for a few seconds and allows you to walk through the full body scanner. As you pass through the device, you think back to the days when you had to place your bags on that stupid conveyor belt, and how it always delayed getting to the gate on time.

At the gate, you connect your iPhone 5G with the gate information system, and you instantly receive a message about your upgrade request, sadly you’ll be stuck in coach again for this flight.

Boarding is delayed 20 minutes, once it begins, your phone begins to vibrate that your boarding group is allowed to get on the plane. At the gate, you stare into the airline iris scanner, and the gate attendant allows you to board.

A lot of what I just wrote sounds very much like science fiction, but the idea behind it is based upon developments being made in the world of aviation technology. Airlines and airports have long been very outdated places, and innovation meant investing in new equipment, which is something airlines hate doing.
Mobile boarding passes

The “swipe to board” mobile phone boarding pass may not be here just yet, but the foundations for this kind of technology are already in place. Our very own Grant Martin was one of the first people to post a real life review of using an iPhone instead of a paper boarding pass, and wrote about his experiences here.

The idea of using your phone as a boarding pass is nothing new, but now more and more phones are being sold with large high-resolution displays, airlines are beginning trials that will allow you a true paper-free experience. There are even some phones out there with the ability to “swipe and read”, like a system being offered on some Nokia phones called “Near Field Communications

My prediction? We’ll be seeing more airlines introduce trials of mobile phone boarding passes in 2009, and by 2011 all airlines will have the equipment in place to let you board using a bar code image on your phone display.

TSA/immigration biometric ID readers

In an ideal world (in the minds of the Department of Homeland Security), we’ll all be fingerprinted, and will have our personal information stored in a massive government database.

The first steps are already being taken at the immigration checkpoint where visitors to the country are fingerprinted. The next step beings early next year, when US Permanent Residents get fingerprinted when they return to the US.

As the fingerprint database begins to grow, it probably won’t be too long until someone floats the idea (again) of a national ID with fingerprint information.

Some airports already have government backed biometric systems in place; Amsterdam Schiphol introduced the Privium system back in 2001 and London airports have been offering passengers the ability to bypass the immigration desk with their IRIS system since 2006.

The US “INSPASS” biometric immigration system was in place as early as 1993, but was abandoned in 2002. The foundations of INSPASS are now being used for border crossings between the US and Canada in the NEXUS system.

My prediction? A nationwide US biometric database won’t happen for at least 10 more years. Privacy is something far too important to allow technology to intervene with, especially when the government has a poor track record of implementing these new projects. I do forsee larger projects by the private sector allowing travelers to pass the checkpoint faster. Clear already does biometric authentication at the airport, but only at a limited number of cities.

Security checkpoint full body scanners

The full body scanner is not new, but it is needless to say that the concept of a full body x-ray doesn’t sit too well with many people. The scanners are currently being tested at 10 different US airports, but the trial only involves offering the scanner as an alternative to a pat down in a secondary security search.

The obvious question is whether the scanner can see “everything”, and the answer is yes – the full body scanner will see all your “parts”, the TSA tries to alleviate passenger concerns by moving the screener away from the machine, hidden away in a dark room. Your face is also blurred on the display, so there is no risk of TSA agents pointing at you while giggling like little school girls.

Sadly, the truth is that the full body scanner is probably here to stay, and will eventually become the way all passengers are scanned at the airport. There is no denying that the ability to see right through you and your clothes is the most effective way to scan for weapons or other unwanted items at the airport. Whether this technology will also involve you walking through with your bags is just a matter of time.

My prediction? By 2012 we’ll have full body scanners at some of the major airports in the country, and by 2015 all airports will be scanning passengers with these devices.

Gate technology improvements

A large number of passengers at the airport already walk around with a Bluetooth enabled phone in their pocket, so when you mix that technology with tracking software, you end up with something that can tell where you are, or more importantly where you are when you should be at the gate getting on your flight.

Copenhagen airport has a system in place that uses this technology to track passengers who voluntarily participate in the program.

Imagine a world where the airport announcement doesn’t just ask Mr.Jones to proceed to gate 12, but also tells him to get the hell out of the duty free store and run, because it is a 9 minute walk from where he currently is.

My prediction? Within the next couple of years, we’ll see a true “real time” boarding announcement system that can communicate with your mobile phone. It may be as simple as an email telling you to hurry up, but I have no doubts that airlines will do everything they can to speed up the boarding process, and try to get a better idea of where passengers are when they should be at the gate.