Scanner Mania vs. Profiling Are Traditional Security Methods the Best Path to Air Safety?

The failed Christmas attack on a US airliner has reignited the debate in Europe over more rigorous passenger scrutiny. The German government reacted swiftly by tightening security requirements. But many regulations are little more than window dressing. Is the profiling practiced at Israeli airports the better answer?

By , Marco Evers, and

Kim Hyun Hee was lucky as she passed through the carry-on luggage inspection in November 1987. But it was the kind of luck that would end in the deaths of 115 people on board Korean Airlines Flight 858. It would happen eight-and-a-half hours later, when an alarm clock rang, setting off a bomb Kim was carrying in one of her bags.

Kim, an agent with the North Korean intelligence service, had made it through the security checkpoint at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. With a radio, filled with 350 grams of C-4 plastic explosive. And with the batteries she needed to ignite the bomb, and that airport officials had wanted to confiscate, until her partner managed to convince the woman at the checkpoint to let her keep the batteries. And, of course, with the bottle containing 700 milliliters of PLX, a liquid explosive, clear as water and deadly as nitroglycerine.

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Now she was sitting in a window seat on the Boeing 707 with a bomb stowed in the overhead luggage bin. It seemed like an eternity, that first one-hour leg of the flight, from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi, where she would get off the plane and leave the bomb behind. And with the bomb, Kim was leaving behind 115 people whose flight would later explode over the sea near Burma -- when the it went off at 8 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1987.

In December 2009, a terrorist was once again sitting on a plane carrying explosives -- Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian whose name and face became front-page news on Christmas Day. A suicide bomber acting in the name of Allah, traveling on an Airbus 330 that was carrying 289 passengers from Amsterdam to Detroit. He too was carrying a dangerous liquid, as well as a powder and explosives. But in his case the terrorist's attempt to ignite his explosives was foiled when other passengers overpowered him. There were no casualties this time, but the attempted bombing left a deep impression on the global public.

The two attacks, one successful and one failed, were 22 years apart. The KAL 858 bombing was the first terrorist attack on an airliner in which a liquid explosive was believed to have been used. It was the first indication that such a risk even existed, not just as a theoretical possibility but also as a terrorist reality. Liquid inspections could have been introduced then, after KAL 858, but they weren't.

Security Lines to Get Longer

Today all hand luggage is subject to inspections for liquids at airports in Europe, North America and many countries around the world. In Germany alone, passengers line up for these inspections at 589 checkpoints. According to the German Airport Association (ADV), inspections for liquids consume about a quarter of the time passengers lose at airports.

But now, after the failed Detroit bombing, those long lines will become even longer. The damage on board the Airbus was minimal, and the only injured passenger was Abdulmutallab, who burned his leg. But, in contrast to what happened 22 years ago, the adverse effects on today's modern, mobile society will be enormous.

Once again, the fear of another attack is spreading among air travelers. US President Barack Obama promptly announced tighter security measures, and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, followed suit. German federal police, responding to pressure from the Americans, have already announced that they will sharply increase the number of body searches performed on passengers. Shortly after the Nigerian was taken into custody in Detroit, a senior official with the American Transportation Security Administration (TSA) contacted the Interior Ministry in Berlin and demanded "100 percent" -- in other words, he wanted every passenger to be subjected to a manual body search. Although de Maizière was unwilling to fully comply with the official's request, he did promise the Americans that he would do everything that was feasible to increase security.

This week, officials from the interior ministries of European Union member states will meet with the European Commission in Brussels to discuss possible measures. Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, state secretary in the German Interior Ministry, says that an all-out ban on carry-on luggage, as some countries have proposed in the past, would "not make sense." Interior Minister de Maizière, for his part, warns against "unnecessary panic," calling for a balance between the heightened security precautions travelers will have to accept and a level of security deemed reasonable.

Lufthansa is already asking its US-bound passengers to arrive at Frankfurt Airport an hour earlier than in the past. Air Canada, complying with the TSA's demands, initially prohibited passengers from even leaving their seats for a full hour prior to landing. The TSA later withdrew the requirement.

'Naked Scanners' To Be Deployed

Thanks to Abdulmutallab, politicians are arguing once again over so-called "naked scanners," which the German interior ministry had declared to be "nonsense" only a year ago. Indeed, the EU had put the idea on hold in 2008 after it was met with a storm of public outrage. But now there are many indications that the devices, which can be used to detect weapons and explosives hidden on the body, will be introduced this year, after all. The latest generation of the devices, already being tested in German federal police laboratories, no longer depict realistic nude images, which has somewhat alleviated privacy concerns. Last Wednesday, de Maizière told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that he now has "no problem" with the technology. In his view, the key criteria are that it must protect privacy rights, operate reliably and not be hazardous to health. The Netherlands is already a step further, with plans to begin using full-body scanners for all passengers traveling to the United States in three weeks' time.

Privacy advocates, in particular, remain rigorously opposed to the technology, no matter how unclear the images it produces are. Security efforts are focused too heavily on technology and pay too little attention to the question of how potential perpetrators can be detected early on using suspicious information, says German Federal Data Protection Administrator Peter Schaar, the government's top privacy watchdog. But authorities also intend to improve their efforts in this regard. The German Interior Ministry has ordered an investigation to answer critical questions, like: Who in Germany, in a case like Detroit, would have had access to suspicious facts about the attacker early on? And, if so, who would have been informed, and when?

The ultimate goal of such efforts is to ensure that intelligence agencies exchange more information, both within Europe and between Germany and the United States. "We can no longer afford the restrictive access we have had until now when we encounter suspicious cases," says Interior Ministry State Secretary Fritsche. "We all have to change our way of thinking." Hans-Peter Uhl, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) parliamentary spokesman for internal security issues, believes the "centralization of all existing information is more promising than inventing an intelligent machine that would filter out all risk at airports."

Data Collection Efforts

The Interior Ministry's efforts to network more databases and disseminate more information have already created problems for the German government. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), warns against the "indiscriminate collection and storage of millions of pieces of data and demands to constantly add new intervention powers." If, as in the case of the Nigerian, even concrete warning signs become lost in a mountain of information, says Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg, the expansion of data collection efforts "apparently offers no additional security."

A dispute could re-erupt within the EU over stricter rules for fluids in carry-on luggage. And why not introduce additional controls, such as checking passengers for suspicious powders, some ask? Until now, security inspectors have shown no interest in items like instant drink mixes in carry-on luggage. Will that change in the future?

We are seeing a familiar pattern emerge once again: no action without reaction, no terrorist plan without a corresponding defense plan. Nowhere are such efforts implemented as rigorously as in air travel. The images of two jets slamming into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 have led to the creation of standards specific to aviation, peculiar standards that now categorize risks as unacceptable that fall well short of the risks we normally expect to encounter in other aspects of life: in traffic, while skiing or even while walking across a pedestrian crosswalk. But the hazards aviation security standards aim to prevent are in fact unpreventable. They are intended to give citizens a sense of security that doesn't exist and cannot exist, complete with regulations that are "contradictory," says Jörg Handwerg, the spokesman of the German pilots' association Cockpit. Take, for example, the ban on knives. Ordinary table knives are confiscated at airport security checkpoints, but any terrorist can obtain a complete set of metal cutlery in restaurants located beyond the security checkpoints.

Nevertheless, there have been no plans to date, at least in Europe, to respond to the threat with anything but rules and even more rules. Europeans have trouble accepting the idea that instead of constantly increasing the number of inspections, it might make sense to introduce fewer but smarter inspections.

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Insulaner 01/04/2010
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Unfortunately there is no absolute safety. There can be the newest scanners and profilers and whatever new gadget for secret services, all of it will not deliver saftey. The newest attack shows, that obviously the amount of data already collected by all those intelligence services is too much to be properly analysed. Even a direct warning has not been recognised. A better coordination will just show the next security gap. And if it is not planes or airports, it can be buses, trains, ships, shopping malls etc. The whole actionism is a big show to suggest security to the people that does not exist. A useless and not very funny show. But good advertisement for the terrorists. Look, what we can make them do to themselves..... Regards Insulaner
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