Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Airport Security

Based on our recent travels, here's a round up of national airport security systems. IMHO, with the exception of El Al/Israel these systems are a waste of time and money and represent a victory for terrorists.

First a note on the technologies used.

The portals we walk through are simple metal detectors, using the same technology as mine detectors. The operators can set the metal level at which the gates raise an alarm. These portals stop guns but not cutting or stabbing weapons made of plastic.

A new system uses backscatter X-ray to show the subject naked - BAA has been testing this at Heathrow's Terminal 4 on randomly selected "volunteers" (if you object they promise a full body search). They use an operator of the same sex as the passenger, but I don't see them ever using this on a veiled Muslim.

Carry ons are run through X-ray machines - the operators are trained to look for objects that might be bombs, guns, knives etc. Our bags may also be scanned for explosives using gadgets that sniff for chemicals. Both systems can be spoofed by packing weapons into commonplace objects and encapsulating them with the appropriate X-ray opacity and chemical isolation.

Checked bags are also X-rayed and increasingly scanned for explosives. Most importantly, they're now loaded into hardened containers (if Pan Am 103 had these, it would have survived the Libyan bomb).

So all of these technologies can be evaded, and to make matters worse different countries use them in quite different ways - a problem in an interconnected world.

The US

Americans I met on our recent trip reported they now have to remove their shoes so they can be X-rayed separately. There's no positive profiling - one reported their 4-year old was pulled for a full (external) body search.

However there are restrictions on searching of Muslims - no more than 2 can be pulled per flight - so an attack team has to be at least 3.

The UK

Possibly because their traffic levels tanked, the Brits just dropped their special restrictions on carry on and reverted to the IATA sizes - however they only allow one item. They ban cosmetics and fluids unless you buy them air-side from airport stores.

The best way to avoid intrusive search is to wear a head-to-toe Muslim veil:
A male suspect in a major anti-terrorist investigation in Britain escaped capture by allegedly disguising himself as a Muslim woman dressed in a burka...
A reporter confirmed that:
I breezed through airport security in a veil that left just my eyes on view. It beggars belief no one checked my face.
This is because of the Brit PC obsession with protecting minorities.

Italy

Like the rest of Europe, Italy never adopted the Brit measures for intra-Europe travel(it may have done for flights to the US). We breezed through Rome security, and each carried 2 bags on. Nobody had to take off any item of clothing or footwear, probably because many Italians dress exquisitely and wouldn't allow their outfits to be messed up.

Germany

This is pretty thorough - we're talking Germans here. I objected to them taking my wallet for X-ray, out of my sight and control. Mrs G says this is a cultural thing - German men carry handbags/purses, so their don't see anything odd in insisting on X-raying the Anglo equivalent wallets.

Israel

Everything gets X-rayed by experts, and their security team pulls out passengers who are out of the ordinary and briefly and politely grill them. And they have men with guns on every El Al plane

Conclusion

The only secure airline is El Al, and the only secure airport is Ben Gurion International.

In the rest of the world, airport security is a panacea. The US and UK security systems are most easily penetrated by people dressed as Muslims.

Mainland European security reflects national culture - Italians are Italian, Germans, are German and so on. France is said to be quite secure, but I don't go there.

Finally, all security devices can be subverted with a modest level of technical expertise.