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…

Security and the Economy (again)

The whole body scanners issue has once again brought to the fore the question of the relationship of security and the economy (see here, here and here). This is a more complex question than the political economy which argues that security companies benefit, therefore there are economic interests behind every surveillance surge than occurs. Of course, some companies, scanner makers, Rapiscan and L3 in particular in this case, make a lot of money form their patented systems: each one of the 44 L3 Scanners that Canadian airports are installing costs around $250,000 CAN (125,000 Euro), which adds up to a hefty income to L3. And of course there are connections to the revolving door of US Homeland Security governance at least: Michael Chertoff, the former Head of HOmeland Security from 2005-9 was making the case for scanners immediately after the December 25th thighbomber’s failed attempt, yet he neglected to mention his role as consultant to Rapiscan, which was awarded millions of dollars of contracts under his watch.

However, there are other interests here, notably the aviation industry, airlines and airports, not to mention those of travelers. The Toronto Globe and Mail today reports how airlines in Canada are increasingly concerned that already growing security levies from government (to provide security) will only spiral with every new measure introduced. The airlines expect the government to bear the costs. The government has merely said that it will try to ensure that costs passed on are minimised. However someone has to pay, somewhere along the line. If airlines (or their passengers) are not paying, then tax-payers are and it’s debatable whether ultimately, subsidising the security costs of international travelers is really what taxes should be for when times are hard. Of course no government wants this to come down to a ‘security versus the economy’ argument, but that has to be discussed, alongside the still largely unaddressed issues of privacy and other individual and collective liberties.

After the Thighbomber: Virtual Strip Searches at every airport?

The botched attempt to bomb a flight into the US by a the son of a wealthy Nigerian family, using explosive components strapped to his thigh, has led to an immediate techno-economic consequence, which is to speed up the process of installing terahertz wave or other body scanners in major airports, which if nothing else will provide a guaranteed income stream to Rapiscan and Qinetiq, who make these kinds of machines. Schipol in Amsterdam, where  announced they would be extending their body scanning operation and the British government almost immediately followed by saying that major British airports would be rolling out body scanning within weeks. Now, Canada is to do the same.

But, will this make a real difference or is it just more symbolic security? The scanners certainly ‘work’ in the sense that they do provide pretty good images of what is under the clothes of passengers (see below). However, interpreting what is seen is still no easy task and will the scanners will certainly not replace physical searches, but will add yet another extra layer of surveillant sorting and therefore delay. And there are questions over the effectiveness of the scanners in particular areas of the body. The Toronto Sun reports that trials at Kelowna Airport in British Columbia “left blind spots over the head and feet”, so these machines are certainly not the ‘silver bullet’.

Then of course, there are the privacy issues. I don’t have any particular problem with the technology, provided it is restricted to airports and doesn’t start to get used in other, more everyday, social settings (which given the rapid development of this technology is by no means certain). However, as I noted the last time I wrote about this, there will be many religious, gender-based and personal reasons for objecting to their use. The other question of course is whether, every time some lone lunatic tries something like this – that was, let us not forget, poorly planned and ineffective, and which should have been prevented by other conventional intelligence operations working properly – it makes sense to jump and harden security (or at least be seen to harden security) for everyone travelling internationally. Doing this just plays into the hands of terrorists as it disrupts the ordinary workings of an open society.

Body Scan Image (US TSA)