Yes, there’s a better way to screen air travelers

If you look enviously at the TSA Pre-Check line whenever you’re at the airport — where pre-cleared air travelers breeze through the checkpoint without having to be scanned, remove their shoes or face a humiliating “enhanced” pat-down — then join the club.

If you ask yourself: “What sets them apart from me?” and the answer is, “Nothing, really,” then you’re well on your way to answering a question that has haunted aviation security professionals since 2009.

Is there a better way to screen air travelers than scanning them?

Some say there isn’t, and they’ll insist that shooting X-rays or microwaves at your body is the only way to be absolutely sure you’re not packing a gun or carrying explosives. But many of these “experts” have ulterior motives, because they happen to also work for the manufacturers of X-ray and millimeter wave technology.

Of course they want more machines. Their livelihoods depend on it.

But a hard look at the facts says otherwise. The scanners haven’t foiled a single terrorist attack. In fact, their vulnerabilities are so well-known to the bad guys they would probably prefer a scan over a pat-down on their way to their terrorist mission, assuming they can’t secure Pre-Check clearances. The machines have an obvious, and unfortunate, blind spot.

Gold standards?

A few weeks ago, TSA Administrator John Pistole proclaimed that American aviation security was the gold standard. This didn’t sit well with the Israelis, who have long considered themselves to be the standard-bearer when it comes to aviation security. But the administrator can be forgiven for engaging in a little hyperbole; after all, he needs to raise employee morale at his $8 billion-a-year agency, which isn’t exactly known for its happy workforce.

But a look at the real gold standard in aviation security — yep, that would be Israel — suggests full-body scanners may be worthless. Israel doesn’t use them at all. A manager told Canadian officials in 2010 that the scanners were easily fooled, which is why Israel didn’t rely on them. Although some scanners have been tested in Israel since then, security officials continue to refuse to use the machines as a primary method of screening.
A look at what the real experts are doing seems to suggest that the answer to the question, “Is there a better way?” is: absolutely.

A different scanner

One solution is to switch scanners. For the last few weeks, the folks who are developing a new kind of technology have been sending me information about their product. Iscon’s Thermo-Conductive Mini-Portal Scanner promises a way to screen passengers without using radiation or creating a revealing image.

Instead of firing X-rays at passengers, this infrared body scanner detects hidden objects without penetrating clothing or making physical contact, according to the manufacturer. It recently completed tests at Bristol Airport in the U.K., where it “performed well,” according to the company.

Certainly, the thought of waving an infrared scanner in front of passengers instead of bombarding them with radiation is enough for the TSA’s critics to sit up and take notice. But the best scanner, they contend, is no scanner.

Time to remove the scanners?

The TSA is furiously backpedaling from its “one size fits all” solution to aviation security. It started by giving dignitaries and certain members of law enforcement a pass on the full-body scanners. Then came active-duty military and crewmembers. Next, it was elite-level frequent fliers and people who had undergone a background check. Now it’s testing a managed inclusion program that would open the scannerless Pre-Check lines to anyone who has been cleared by a bomb-sniffing dog.

If those tests are successful, then I wonder — who’s left?

We’re just a few short years, and perhaps months, away from admitting that the scanners and the punitive pat-downs that air travelers receive when they refuse to submit to a potentially dangerous scan, do not work.

Let’s get a move on.

  • anonymous moose

    About Israel as the gold standard of air travel security: I’d like to offer a permanent objection to that opinion. With a bit of googling you’ll discover that Israeli airport security is unashamedly racist: mostly, but not only, vs Palestinians and other middle-eastern-looking people. Israel airport security also pick on people who are on a black list because of their affiliation to liberal-wing political groups in Israel or worldwide. One might claim that the best model is to mimic Israeli airport security minus these racist and politically-biased aspects, but I feel that these aspects are actually an inseparable part of the system, not just an add-on that you can remove.

    Due diligence: I’m an Israeli Jew — one of the people who this system thinks it’s protecting. I and many of my peers are not at all happy about the discriminatory nature of this system, and think that even if it makes us slightly more secure (a shaky prospect at best), it also causes unjustified grief to many innocent people and in the long run makes us less safe because it furthers ethnic inequality.

    • anonymous moose, totally agree. I’ve said/written this more times than I can count, and it’s amazing how many people get pissed off by it.

    • Daisiemae

      It seems to me that the majority of people (and most particularly those who are in charge) are incapable of comprehending that violence and oppression begets violence and oppression begets violence and oppression begets violence and oppression, etc. It’s a never ending cycle that can be seen played out over and over again since the dawn of time.

      Human beings, as pack animals, must always have an us v them relationship with the world. The result, as you point out, is the creation of our future enemy and quite possibly our own demise.

      But in spite of the wrongheaded racist aspect of Israeli security that will likely lead to future woe, there are things we can learn from the Israelis and their success in preventing any terroristic attacks on their planes. Israeli security has made it quite clear that scanning and searching all passengers is fruitless as a means of preventing terrorism. Focusing on keeping people with bad intent off of planes is a better security method than focusing on every single item that could possibly used as a weapon.

      It’s too bad that the US government cannot look at the Israeli model, take the things that work, and incorporate those things into the US model while at the same time leaving off the bad ideas like racism.

      But that will never happen. Because the top priority in the country is not security or preventing racism. The top priority is making money for connected politicians and their corporate cronies. If those big bucks come at the cost of misery to the people of the United States, then so be it.

  • I disagree with the premise of “other scanners”. The PROBLEM is that NO SCANNER technology actually identifies any detected object. All they can do is say there MAY BE an object, as people who perspire or mastectomy patients can attest. This leads to millions of potential criminal touching of private parts. That is a crime and unacceptable in a free country.

    Quite simply, scanners do not detect metal, they do not detect explosive molecules, they do not identify guns vs candy in a pocket, or do anything OTHER than search your body inch-by-inch without even any reasonable suspicion.

    Metal detectors AT LEAST do not search your body inch-by-inch and identify metal which is associated with guns.

    The real issue is that no American airline passenger has killed anyone in over 50 years.

    The REVISED AMERICAN PRECHECK PROGRAM should simply be: Are you a US citizen? Then WELCOME ABOARD!

  • Susan Richart

    Interesting news from the hinterlands:

    Good news the scanners will be gone but, at least from the article, it would sound like everyone going through WTMD will also get a pat-down:

    “Mercer says the Helena Airport will still have its older model walk-through unit, but it will be accompanied by pat-downs.”

    Here’s a real gem:

    “Helena airport director Ron Mercer is looking for ways to stop the removal: “It seems there should be other things looked at, like extending the period of time to get more of these machines manufactured and put them into the larger airports. Some states haven’t even heard about it. Some have heard rumors. I mean, it’s the poorest orchestrated mess I have seen from somebody who is a ‘partner’ with us in aviation security that I’ve ever seen.

    Sad that he thinks the scanners are worthwhile, however.

  • Unfortunately, we’ve been down all these roads before.

    Pre-Check is a boondoggle. It doesn’t guarantee anything, as the TSA itself admits. It’s an extortion racket that doesn’t work. You’d get better results with the Mafia. And again, it’s ethically indefensible; it’s the embodiment of “All Animals Are Equal But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.” (And nah, no well-educated, well-traveled, savvy, determined person, like the 9/11 hijackers, could ever manage to get on the Pre-Check list. Not with all our crack security teams on the job!)

    Sorry, but I see the new thermo-conductive mini-portal as just another way to shovel money at the security industry.

    The scanners have been proven, repeatedly, to be easily foiled. The backscatter (x-ray) scanners were banned in the EU long ago because they emit unknown and possibly unsafe levels of radiation, and only now is the US scrapping them. The millimeter wave scanners have, like the backscatters, never been independently tested for safety. Regardless, all scanners are an invasion of privacy and a violation of the 4th Amendment.

    Bomb-sniffing dogs aren’t practical, as dog trainers themselves say; links pointing to evidence and quotes from dog trainers can be found here:

    The fact is that 99.99999999999999999% (and probably more decimal points) of passengers aren’t carrying bombs. Yet we’re all treated as if we were. We’re all treated as criminals. This is unjust.

    And for those who don’t care that it’s unjust, it’s an insane waste of money — $8 billion a year for the TSA, when they have, by their own admission, not caught or thwarted a single potential attacker, not once. How much are we willing to spend on the astronomically small risk of a terrorist attack on a plane? Why aren’t we willing to spend that on highway safety, on health care, on any number of the dozens of other risks that are greater than that of terrorism?

  • RonBonner

    First step is getting some adult leadership at TSA. Then steps to understand that virtually no passenger is a threat.

    The flying public has far more to fear from unscreened airport workers than they do of fellow passengers but Pistole’s TSA refuses to address this fact.

    9/11 wasn’t about taking airplanes down but using airplanes as weapons. That won’t happen again.