Billions wasted on airport ‘security’

A new report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) say that the industry is wasting billions on unnecessary and ineffective security procedures which are slowing down travel and damaging the whole sector’s economic prospects, according to The Guardian. This comes only days after the German government decided not to introduce body-scanners after trials showed them to be unreliable.

The argument is not particularly surprising, but there seem to be interesting aspects of the issue (apart from the basic human rights problems which we should never forget). The first is that clearly someone is benefitting economically, even if it is not the air transport sector, and that someone is the security industry – although as it happens, a whole range of people and companies have benefitted from the aftermath of 9/11. The Guardian article mentions that UK-based scanning company, Smiths, has tripled its profits this year to near $1Bn, despite the problems with scanners. However, it isn’t all bad. In European domestic and regional markets, airlines have lost out to railway travel, and this can only be a good thing in terms of environmental concerns.

The second aspect is that IATA is using this to push the revival of integrated ‘trusted traveller’ plans coming out of the USA. Many countries have bilateral schemes, but the idea is for travellers with ‘nothing to hide’ to submit personal information to a central body that would validate them without the need for time-consuming checks on the airport. So far, such schemes have been largely restricted to business-class passengers, raising the strong possibility of confusion between really improved security and simply buying more convenience. However, there is another problem from the point of view of security here too: one of the major concerns for security is so-called ‘clean skins’, terrorist who have never triggered any suspicion because they are either entirely new converts to the cause, or have been deep undercover for years cultivating an unblemished record.

In any case, it appears that the security companies are trying to get past the criticism by producing new seamless and less intrusive scanning technologies that would not require long waits and would be integrated into the architecture of airport corridors etc. Of course, the delays and inconvenience of obvious security and surveillance procedures have a purpose and are not just by-products. There is, theoretically at least, a consciousness-raising effect of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theater’. If these new gadgets work, and the German trial suggests that there is often more smoke than heat in claims about effectiveness, this effect would be diminished in favour of speed and convenience for an as yet unknown proportion of travellers and much greater inconvenience for the remainder. It’s an interesting conundrum for the authorities…

Growing Movement Against Body Scanners in the USA

Two of the major pilots’ unions in the USA are advising their members not to submit to body scans. There have also been a number of cases of people refusing to cooperate with the new (and so far unofficial) more intense TSA ‘pat-downs’ (including ‘testicular cupping’ for men…) for those who decide not to be scanned. Geek website, Boing Boing, has been documenting the growing movement against body scanning, including T-shirts, no-fly days and the like, however it seems rather optimistic to suggest, as they do, that the action of the unions will hasten the inevitable end of the scanners following some talk that they do not detect internal objects in the body and earlier demonstrations that they may not even be that good at finding some external objects. In fact, it seems more likely that not only will they eventually become mandatory sooner rather than later, but that the technical limitations of the current scanners will prompt their replacement by more advanced models that are now already being tested, which do detect internal foreign objects.

Well, I will soon have up close and personal experience of just what is going on when I fly to San Francisco tomorrow… wish me luck!