Profiling, not scanning, will stop potential plane bombers

Once again the vulnerability of air travel to terrorism has been exposed. The existing measures deployed for passenger security at airport security points didn’t stop the Christmas Day airline bomb plot suspect who had explosives sewn into his underwear. The archway metal detector can, after all, only detect metal.

Unsurprisingly, the knee-jerk reaction of many governments is to order more full-body scanners. They can, in the hands of expert operators, identify a host of substances and items concealed beneath clothing.

But it would be a grave error to use this technology to screen all passengers. Not only are these scanners much more expensive than their metal-detection predecessors, they are also slower. If they are not used smartly, the result will be longer queues. This would be self-defeating. Crowded places are targets for fanatics with homicidal intent. So our aim must be to reduce the length of the lines, not increase them.

Gordon Brown said yesterday that “we need to continually explore the most sophisticated devices capable of identifying explosives, guns, knives and other such items on the body”. Technology has its place, but the emphasis is wrong; the focus is on searching for banned items rather than looking for criminal intent.

As long as we get this wrong, security staff will continue to waste their time on the mass of ordinary passengers while ignoring the risk that individuals may pose to a flight, and terrorists will learn new tricks to circumvent the latest technology.

We ought to profile passengers. And we need trained, streetwise security professionals who evaluate our appearance, behaviour and travel documents, and then determine which technology is best suited for screening each passenger. There are various types of body scanners, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. None of us, for instance, should know how we are going to be screened at the airport.

A passenger whose ticket was paid for in cash in Ghana for a journey starting in Nigeria and ending in the US, who was travelling for two weeks with no checked bags, having visited countries associated with terrorism — let alone his name being known to the authorities — must warrant greater scrutiny; targeting passengers like that has nothing to do with religion or colour of skin. Similarly, we are wasting time and resources by asking a family jetting off to Disneyland to undergo body scans.

We need to move from the current predictable system, which is bogged down by political correctness, and move to an intelligent regime that has risk analysis at its heart.

Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International.