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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Body Search 2015

Posted on 14th April 2015 at 11:49am

No single technology can guarantee to detect all threats, we need an array of technologies that can be deployed, depending on the perceived threat and a move away from predictable, tick-box measures, says Philip Baum

Think of a security checkpoint and one thinks of an airport. This is the one security environment where the architectural design and technologies deployed are fairly standardised around the globe; an X-ray machine is used to screen baggage and an archway metal detector is used for ensuring that passengers are not armed with a weapon with which they can hijack an aircraft.

In some locations, the archway is supplemented, or has been replaced by an advanced imaging technology portal. Generally relying on millimetre wave technology, each passenger can be screened to see whether or not they have secreted something beneath their clothing.

September 11, 2001 was when terrorist action turned into a mass media spectacle. City centres, aircraft and public transportation systems had been bombed before, and thousands of people had died but, with the possible exception of acts of genocide perpetrated under the guise of war, never before had a group orchestrated its attack in a way that would also factor in media coverage.

Now, attacks are virtually a regular occurrence, fed by the internet and social media, which bring coverage of these events to millions of people around the globe.

A few years ago, it was the beheading of single hostages, but this year we have seen people in cages being burnt alive and groups of men beheaded on a beach. All of this is recorded and broadcast to a horrified, yet curious, worldwide audience. The footage is high quality, professionally directed, accompanied by music, text and credits, demonstrating the creativity, sophistication and expertise we are up against.

Security professionals are having to consider how best to react to the latest modus operandi of terrorist groups. Arguably the days of the traditional PFLP-style aircraft hijack, IRA-style letter bomb or FARC-style kidnap are behind us – they lack sensationalism. But such thinking is short sighted, primarily as there are many terrorist organisations out there that also find IS-style tactics abhorrent. They wish to terrorise in order to achieve their goals, which can be calculated either in terms of financial gain, political statement or the release of imprisoned comrades, rather than completely alienating those they are appealing to. Additionally the threat is not only from terrorists – the security services also need to be able to prevent the actions of criminals or those with deep-rooted psychological problems.

Martin Bryant’s massacre of 35 people in a shooting spree at the Port Arthur penal colony in Tasmania in 1996 – a place about as far removed from traditional terrorist activity as one can imagine – and Anders Behring Breivik’s killing of 69 children on the Norwegian island of Utøya in 2011, demonstrate that ‘terror’ is not only the result of acts of ‘terrorism’. We are all potential targets and there is no place immune from the threat of violence.

Against this backdrop, we need to consider how we can deliver effective security while not impeding normal life. The airport security checkpoint has, to a certain extent, become a chokepoint which frustrates passengers, creates a new target in its own right (suicide bombings around the world have often targeted entrances to shopping centres, police stations, nightclubs or even hospitals). This frustration is also a goal of the terrorists as their primary aim is to disrupt our daily lives.

So for those non-aviation entities considering how best to screen the masses, one would hope that they do not use the airport as a model of best practice.

Prisons, unlike airports, have all the time in the world to screen inmates and visitors, yet prohibited items, including weapons, still manage to make it to the inside. Drugs are transported across international borders with alarming ease, often secreted within body cavities. Where there is a will, there is a way.

No single technology can offer any guarantees at detecting all threats. What we need is an array of technologies that can be deployed, depending on the perceived threat. This requires a common-sense approach to security screening and a move away from predictable, standardised tick-box measures.

There is a natural resistance to embracing a security regime that depends on human beings to evaluate threats. Many argue that the greatest weakness in the security chain is the human factor. In fact, the opposite is true – the weakness is our failure to invest in people and encourage them to think outside the box. Technology has its role to play, but it needs to be deployed intelligently if we are to screen an individual effectively.

The concept of the ‘body bomb’ is not far-fetched. Terrorists learn from criminal activity and it is entirely logical that the next airline bomber might secrete their device within their body. Some would argue that the chances of the blast of a device carried internally perforating the fuselage of an aircraft is small, but even a failed attempt could create fear and have a dramatic effect on the number of people flying; one only has to look at the impact of the failed attempts of both Richard Reid to destroy an American Airlines flight in 2001 with a shoe bomb, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009 with a bomb in his underpants as examples.

Furthermore, perhaps a body cavity might be used as a space in which to infiltrate a device, or component parts thereof, into a restricted area, with detonation being effected once removed from the body. But what technologies have we deployed to counter this threat?

None. Even within the high-tech aviation arena, the body scanners deployed are based on millimetre wave technology that can see beneath the clothing but not within the body. Customs authorities meanwhile, recognising that smugglers carry items within their bodies, routinely use transmission X-ray systems. Somehow political correctness and exaggerated concerns about the risks of ionising radiation have put a brake on the use of effective screening solutions that respond to the very real threats that we face.

The problem is that there is a perception that all passengers might be screened by advanced imaging technologies when, in reality, only those who give us cause for concern – as with customs inspections – need to be inspected. The vast majority of people do not give us cause for concern; not because they are a member of any trusted traveller programme, but because they meet our baseline expectations and do not exude any behavioural indicators that would necessitate further inspection.

Sports stadia, railway stations, tourist attractions, nightclubs, casinos, theatres, theme parks and city centres all have to put in place a security system which is effective, yet is as invisible as possible. For that reason, plain-clothed behavioural detection officers and CCTV surveillance are the preferred option.

We all know that there is no such thing as 100 per cent security. In the same way that no prison can prevent weapons making it to the cells and no nightclub can prevent drugs being brought onto the dance floor, no transportation system can guarantee that an improvised explosive, or incendiary device will not make it through the checkpoint. What we can do is focus on people, utilise common sense, differentiate and develop a system that is entirely unpredictable, as that is what the enemy fears most.

It is likely that those who are attending Body Search 2015 in London will actually reach a common conclusion. The only way to address the multitude of threats we face is through a combination of technology and profiling, using behavioural analysis to determine which technologies should, if any, be used to screen people.        


Philip Baum is Managing Director, Green Light Ltd, Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Security International and Chairman of Body Search 2015, which takes place near London Heathrow on June 10 – 11, 2015. See diary dates for more information


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