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  (Source: Cynthia Boll/AP)

Pricey new "millimeter-wave" full body scanners may seem promising, but in reality they do little to detect liquids, plastics, or chemical explosives, say UK government officials.  (Source: IOS Graphics)
Turns out we might really not be any safer with new semi-nude scans

On Christmas Day Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, attempted an audacious terrorist attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  Fortunately, the Nigerian native's scheme failed due to faulty explosives and he was taken into custody after being restrained by passengers.  However, in the wake of the attacks, U.S. President Barack Obama is considering rolling out current test-phase 3D scanners on a national basis.

Privacy advocates are outraged as the scanners show basically a nude image of the passenger -- with genitals and breasts blurred by software (though the raw image is fully nude).  However, there may be a far greater problem with the scanners. According to British government officials -- they don't work.

The British Department for Transport (DfT) and the Home Office tested the new 3D scanners thoroughly and found that while they were relatively accurate in catching high-density materials that pat-downs missed (such as knives, box-cutters, or other problem items), they failed to detect most low-density items, including bags of liquid.

The Christmas Day bomber used a 3 oz. package of the chemical powder PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), disguised in his crotch.  Hard to detect in a pat down, British politicians familiar with the country's internal research say that "millimeter-wave" scanners would also likely fail to spot the bag of low-density chemical explosives.

According to Ben Wallace, the UK Conservative MP, tests showed that the new scanners failed to detect a variety of low-density materials, including, plastic, chemicals and liquids.  The waves pass through these materials, hitting the body and then bouncing back, revealing only the underlying skin.

Like the U.S., the UK is now considering adopting the scanners on a broad basis.  However, emerging evidence from government studies on the scanners indicates that the rollout may be nothing more than a pricey game of "security theater" designed to make people feel safe, while doing little in reality.  This is significant, considering the investment may amount to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, an expense that will surely be passed on to taxpayers.

Mr. Wallace comments, "[UK Prime Minister] Gordon Brown is grasping at headlines if he thinks buying a couple of scanners will make us safer. It is too little, too late. Under his leadership, he starved the defence research budget that could have funded a comprehensive solution while at the same time he has weakened our border security.  Scanners cannot provide a comprehensive solution on their own. We must now start to ask if national security demands the use of profiling."

Mr. Wallace is among the politicians in the U.S., UK, and abroad that's suggesting some sort of profiling system as an alternative to more effectively increase security.  Such a system might involve additional searches of foreign nationals, particularly from volatile regions like the Middle East and Africa, while potentially lightening the searches on certain groups, like the elderly.



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RE: Profiling
By Solandri on 1/4/2010 3:53:11 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
The problem I am having is that this fellow had a powder hidden in his crotch which is not normally detectable in a pat-down search. Is the idea that we are going to start cavity-searching anyone that looks non-western? If you are willing to pack high exlosives next to your bait-n-tackle, then you are probably willing to cram it (gently) where the sun don't shine.

There was a good article on how Israel handles security at its airport. Despite being the most obvious target for terrorist attacks, their airport is actually one of the safest in the world.

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/744426--...

Basically, it says that good interviewing techniques are much more effective than scanning and x-raying everything.


RE: Profiling
By radializer on 1/4/2010 6:48:57 PM , Rating: 2
This is most probably true of other international airports also - when I have traveled through most European airports, there are security personnel asking sets of questions. These questions themselves appear quite harmless and mundane, but the real trick is the training of the individual listening to the answers and assessing behavioral traits such as anxiety as well as consistency of the reports (usually there are 2-3 such mini-interviews at various stages of airport transit).

What this points towards is that, when it comes to assessing security, a well-trained individual may very well be worth a dozen sophisticated machines!

Could the problem be the standard US attitude where designing a better machine to do the job is considered superior to training an "expert" to do the same? The "better mousetrap" is a great motivator for innovation in the free market - but maybe it is not suitable for security??


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