Sunday, November 21, 2010

You Can Touch My Junk

I guess I’m not one to follow an ideology but I’m shocked with the reaction of my conservative friends to the new level of airport screening and the so-called outrages over the intrusiveness of the alternate to the new full body scanner commonly known as the enhanced pat down and the absolute exaggerated rhetoric surrounding the scanner itself but I think before I can put the current situation into perspective a brief re-cap of how we got here might be appropriate for context.

The hijackers on 9-11 used box cutters to take over four planes. These box cutters were easily moved through security disguised as key chains and hidden in carry-on luggage. They were successful in flying planes into buildings because they also counted on passengers and crew following the established hijacking procedures that came out of the wave of worldwide aircraft hijackings in the 1970’s. On 12 September all that changed and the travelling public understood that things were going change and we accepted it, no more nail clippers, no more penknives or Swiss Army knives and no more metal utensils for a few years.

Richard Reid, known as the shoe bomber helped change airport security yet again. After packing the soles of his shoes with explosives he failed to properly ignite the explosives and was captured but this failed attempt insured that we got to take our shoes off and have them run through the x-ray scanning machines. We as the travelling public understood this new threat and accepted it.

Things again changed when an attempt to use liquid explosives was uncovered. For days we couldn’t have carry-on luggage and then it was limited and we learned to pack our liquids and hand lotions in plastic bags and limit it to 3 x 100 mg items. It was a pain and there were grumblings about in convenience especially for those overnight business folks used to not checking bags, now they were stuck or had to buy toiletry items when they arrived but even though 9-11 was five years behind us we got on with it.

Things really seemed to settle down for a few years and most of us had adapted to the system. Strip off your watch, jewellery, belt and shoes, empty your pockets of everything, jackets off, laptop’s out and in a standalone container and you should make it though without a beep and spend the next 10 minutes redressing but there were rumblings and anger building as the public demanded a faster system that didn’t involve taking all those items off so the TSA and other countries agencies turned to tech firms. Over the past few years a product was developed, tested and trialled that would allow you to keep all those metal objects on but would also allow the screen to see any items metal, wood or plastic that weren’t human. This meant that in less than 2 minutes you were through without having to take items off and put them back on and it would ensure a happier safer flying public.

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the underwear bomber came along the critics said the new full body scan x-ray machine might not have prevented this failed attack and they were right in the sense that he didn’t start his travel in a place where the machines were deployed or that an unskilled operator might have confused the rig with a colostomy bag but there is no doubt that the plastic bag holding the liquid explosives and the tubing that allowed for the liquid detonator (the mix of the two liquids would cause the explosion) sewn into his underwear would have shown up clearly and hopefully would have been sufficiently out of place to order an enhanced inspection and questioning.

So that’s where we are, the enemy is evolving and we are responding, they started with box cutters and ended up with liquid explosives hidden in a man’s crotch area, we developed a full body scanning x-ray technology that will expose any physical equipment required to transport the explosive material and an enhanced pat down method for those refusing the x-ray so why the fury?

I suppose part of it, is some of the terms being thrown about in the media, first is that the x-ray machine produces naked pictures of people, on Fox New channels’ Hannity, a few nights back he had a guest on his panel who was a female singer, he suggested that if the screener recognized her he could then post her naked image on line for profit a la Erin Andrews the ESPN reporter who was videotaped naked in her hotel room. I couldn’t believe a journalist of any sort could put forward so many falsehoods in one statement but there it was and nobody was there to correct him. For the record, the screener observing the image is in a separate room and doesn’t actually see the human being x-rayed. The image is not a naked photo as you’d see in playboy but is like a naked mannequin you’d see in a department store there are no facial features, no hair no eyes etc. If a screener did capture the image which they can do if they see something out of sorts it takes a manager to save it or print it and it must be turned over to law enforcement should it get to the level of prosecution. I suppose you could upload a mannequin like photo of a star but if it’s Paris Hilton I’d suggest that you’ll see more of her in the gossip pages.

The second issue is the pat down, John Tyner got quickly famous when he recorded a conversation he had with a TSA screener when he uttered the phrase “don’t touch my junk” or I’ll have you charged for security assault. Man where to start. First flying isn’t a right, second you don’t have to be patted down if you go through the x-ray machine and third, well just watch the opening scenes in the movie The Sting with Robert Redford when his character pulls off a con by telling a man to put his money down his pants in his crotch, because no cop or tough guy will search you there. The day the underwear bomber used that tried and true smuggling method was the day the TSA had to officially start using corrections officer pat down methods to ensure our collective safety.

Many woman wear padded bras, if our enemies replace the padding with liquid explosives we’re vulnerable, if objects are placed into stomach, anal or vaginal cavities they need to be found and the full body scanning x-ray machine will show them, if the enemy convinces a woman to get implants filled with liquid explosives they will still need to ignite them which means a tube which can be seen on the x-ray machine. I know some of this sounds like nonsense or farfetched Hollywoodish stuff but trust me when I say, the enemy is willing to try anything once and twice if it works and don’t for a second think that because an attempt failed because an explosive didn’t properly detonate, they see this as an opportunity to improve their techniques and prove their delivery methodology. They are continuing to evolve and we must also.

I’ve also heard many suggest that Israel’s model of profiling is the better solution, great yes it works when the enemy is obvious but when you only have 100 or so flights per day operating in your entire country it’s pretty easy to profile and take over an hour per flight to screen passengers. Simple math has Israel moving about 150 people per flight or 15,000 per day. One US major airline is running about 2400 flight per day with about 150 people on average per flight or 360,000. During Thanksgiving weekend millions will fly. Think about it folks, we got to the new fully body scanning x-ray machine and enhanced pat downs by demanding that we speed up the process.

Finally I head the head of the pilot’s alliance on talk radio the other day saying his union members didn’t want to go through the new machine because he was concerned about the extra radiation exposure, which is a legitimate concern and needs to be fully address by the manufacturer of these devices with oversight from the FDA. It’s clear the general travelling public is safe but those that will be using the machines daily or even more frequently and the vulnerable like say pregnant women need to be reassured but he tried to say that aircrew should be exempt from all screening and instead rely on biometric identification and this is where he lost me. Again you may say it’s farfetched and too Hollywood but if I wanted to smuggle something on board and knew that I couldn’t do it personally anymore I’d turn to those who get onto the aircraft without being searched and coerce them in any way necessary from bribes to kidnapping their loved ones and threatening their lives so aircrew, baggage handlers, maintenance and cleaning staff also need to be screened each and every time they come in contact with an aircraft. The TSA and airport staffs are just as vulnerable to these threats and also need to be check with multiple people overseeing each decision.

Call me paranoid but even after reading the Tom Clancy novel where a Japanese pilot flies a 747 into the Capitol Building during the State for the Union address leaving our hero Jack Ryan to become the new President I never thought 19 guys with box cutters could change the world as I knew it. We need to think like the enemy and use every and all means to ensure the travelling public gets from point A to point B safely and as efficiently as possible and if that means I get to look like a pot bellied mannequin or a profession TSA screener runs his hand up my leg and touches my junk so be it.

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