Tag Archive: airport

New Airport Security Scanners

The security systems at airports are an interesting example of security “theatre”, where much of what goes on is about re-assurance rather than being particularly effective. I’ve blogged before about this and had some interesting responses, especially around the intrusiveness of current processes versus their effectiveness and where vulnerabilities lie. For obvious reasons, I won’t go in to this.

However, the TSA in the United States is rolling out a new version of their full-body scanner, apparently in response to the criticism that the old-versions were a step too far: the TSA initially denied, for example, that pictures of people’s naked bodies could be stored until several incidents emerged of security staff doing exactly that. Apparently this will be available as a software upgrade. The question is, will the UK do the same?

The new scanner overlays identified potential threats from scans over a generic diagram representing the human form and so masking who the subject is. This has to be a good thing, but like I said in my earlier post, a reliance on technology rather than using intelligence-led investigations will always lead to vulnerabilities while inconveniencing that majority of people.

I’d rather the people who would do me harm never made it to the airport.


I had an interesting conversation yesterday about the concept of eliminating risk completely. It seems that the population at large have been conditioned into thinking everything is safe, that nothing can befall them and, if it does, they should sue.

One great example of this is the anti-vaccine movement in the US. There’s a really interesting article in Wired about this. Essentially, a group of people including several well-known, high-profile people are trying to convince parents not to vaccinate their children against particular diseases, citing statistics that show that there is a (very low) risk of their children developing complications as a result. What they fail to understand is that the alternative represents a much higher risk of the same children having complications or dying from the disease they would otherwise be vaccinated against.

The conversation yesterday revolved around airports: as stated in previous posts, I believe that much of the security around airports is misplaced. An awful lot of money is spent on technology to detect very specific threats rather than taking a more holistic approach. The problem with having specific controls for specific threats are those threats you don’t have controls for. That’s not to say that threat-focused controls don’t have a place: of course they do.

However, where there is money that can be spent on lowering the risk, spending it on devices like the 3D body scanner may not be the most useful (which, incidentally, apparently could raise the risk of you getting cancer more than it lowers the risk of you dying in a terrorist incident) but drawing a line and saving the money isn’t the solution either.

I truly believe that we have a responsibility for lowering the likelihood of incidents happening where we can, effectively and not intrusively. And this is the perennial security problem: where do you draw the line?

As we know, the new 3D airport scanners in use across the United States and being introduced in the UK are designed to show reveal whether there are any concealed weapons on a person’s body. As discussed in an earlier post, the principle is somewhat flawed, as there are so many ways around this system, especially around the concept of a sterile airport environment, post-security. This is analogous to having a simple network-perimeter security model in an IT-context.

However, the other big problem is the fact that these things take pictures of people’s naked bodies and people are in charge of selecting passengers and reviewing the images. There’s a great article on Gizmodo entitled “TSA Says Body Scanners Saving Images ‘Impossible'” with a saved image from a body scanner in the article. The difficulty here is that this whole area is ripe for abuse.

I do want to make it clear that those performing security checks at airports are doing a decent job. As with any large group of people, especially with a certain level of temptation, there will be the odd bad apple. It needs to be made clear that leering at people is not appropriate and is not just “a bit of fun”. Take the case of Donna D’Errico, a former Baywatch star. She has been singled out numerous times for the 3D scanner treatment and she accuses the security personnel of voyeurism.

So, given that they can be easily circumvented, is it appropriate to put a system in that can so easily be abused, where there is little chance of redress? Many clubs and companies use x-ray scanners to scan personal possessions prior to entry: would we be happy for 3D scanners to be widely deployed in the same way?

Airport Security

The security at airports, and 3D body scanners in particular, have been in the news a lot recently. The reason I wanted to write about this is that it demonstrates the reactionary way some security is implemented, while actually making things worse for everyone.

It seems that there are two types of security measure: those that reassure the public that something is being done to protect them, and those that actually help. The former is usually a lot less effective than the latter.

Consider traditional airport security. The departure lounge of an airport is considered a “sterile” environment; all of those in it have been screened. For many years, the visible side of this primarily consisted of an x-ray of carry-on luggage and a metal detector for people to walk through. These devices were designed to prevent people bringing knives and guns on board. In addition, hold-baggage cannot travel in an aircraft without an associated passenger as, in general, people don’t want to blow themselves up.

After entering the departure lounge, a passenger has entered into the “sterile” airline system: people transit through different airports and arrive at totally different destinations via different airlines, often without re-screening in transit.

The question is: what type of attack will this actually prevent? Consider the holes in the sterile environment: the baggage handlers, terminal shop staff, flight crews, maintenance workers and the physical security of the airport perimeter.

The additional security measures brought in over the last few years haven’t really addressed the holes, they simply reinforce the idea that something is being done to protect the travelling public. First it was the shoe scanner. Then belts had to come off, liquids were banned and now we have full body scanners. All of these can be circumvented. All of this inconveniences the travelling public, which I wouldn’t mind so much if someone could convince me that there is a point to it.

I will, like most people, grudgingly comply, but I wonder what measures are put in place to determine whether the benefits justify the cost and who actually makes that call. It is possible to opt-out of the enhanced screening (at least in the US), but this means you will be patted down physically, which can be traumatic for some people, especially kids.

These new controls are also inconsistently applied across the network of airports and some airports can opt-out of the TSA programme. I have, inadvertently, walked through a metal-detector at Heathrow with a solid, stainless-steel watch and been through multiple airports with bottles of water. For any control to work, it has to be applied consistently.

This post may come as a surprise as security people are often portrayed as wanting to lock down the world but I am of the belief it is both impossible and undesirable to live in a 100% risk-free environment and a balance has to be struck between security and preventing people getting on with their lives. What I don’t like are controls that are inconsistent and not comprehensive.

Bruce Schneier has much to say on this topic here.

Here’s a video from the TSA on airport security:

The BBC have an article on the balance between civil liberties and security.

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