Sunday 21 November 2010

How far should security go to search airline passengers?

On December 21st 2001 when Flight 63 was flying over the Atlantic Ocean, Richard Colvin Reid — an Islamic fundamentalist from the United Kingdom, and self-proclaimed Al Qaeda operative — carried shoes that were packed with two types of explosives. Passengers on the flight complained of a smoke smell shortly after meal service. One flight attendant, Hermis Moutardier, walked the aisles of the plane to assess the source. She found Reid sitting alone near a window, attempting to light a match. Moutardier warned him that smoking was not allowed on the airplane, and Reid promised to stop.

A few minutes later, Moutardier found Reid leaning over in his seat. After she asked him what he was doing, Reid grabbed at her, revealing one shoe in his lap, a fuse leading into the shoe, and a lit match. She tried grabbing Reid twice, but he pushed her to the floor each time, and she screamed for help. When another flight attendant, Cristina Jones, arrived to try to subdue him, he fought her and bit her thumb.

The 6 feet 4 inch (193 centimeters) tall Reid was eventually subdued by other passengers on the aircraft, using plastic handcuffs, seatbelt extensions, and headphone cords. A doctor administered Valium found in the flight kit of the aircraft. The pilot announced that the flight was to be diverted to Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts.

Two fighter jets escorted Flight 63 to Logan Airport. The plane was parked in the middle of the runway, and Reid was arrested on the ground while the rest of the passengers were bussed to the main terminal. Authorities later found over 100 grams of plastic explosives TATP and PETN hidden in the hollowed soles of Reid's black shoes, enough to blow a substantial hole in the aircraft. He was later convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment without any hope of parole.

Security procedures at most if not all international airports in the US and Canada have since asked passengers to remove their shoes before proceeding through body scanners, in response to this incident. Sometimes instead of removing their shoes, a small scanner with an explosive detector inside it is waved over the shoes.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (also referred to as Umar Abdul Mutallab and Omar Farooq al-Nigeri; born December 22, 1986, in Lagos, Nigeria) is a Muslim Nigerian citizen who attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, on December 25, 2009.

On Christmas Day 2009, Abdulmutallab traveled to Amsterdam, where he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit. He had purchased his ticket with cash in Ghana on December 16th. Prior to boarding the plane eyewitnesses Kurt Haskell and Lori Haskell testified live on CNN that they witnessed a "smartly dressed Indian man" helping Abdulmutallab onto the plane. They also testify that the ticket agent refused to allow Abdulmutallab on the plane because he did not have his own passport. For a terrorist, that was a pretty stupid move. But permitting the terrorist to board the plane anyhow was really stupid.

Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the washroom of the plane as it approached Detroit, and then covered himself with a blanket after returning to his seat. Other passengers then heard popping noises, smelled a foul odor, and some saw Abdulmutallab’s trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire. Fellow passenger Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director, jumped on Abdulmutallab and subdued him as flight attendants used fire extinguishers to douse the flames. Abdulmutallab was taken toward the front of the airplane cabin, was seen to have lost his trousers due to the fire, and had burns on his legs. When asked by a flight attendant what he had in his pocket, he replied: “Explosive device.” The device consisted of a six-inch (15-cm) packet which was sewn into his underwear containing the explosive powder PETN, which became a plastic explosive when mixed with the high explosive triacetone triperoxide (TAPN) (the same two explosives that were used by Richard Reid in 2001), and a syringe containing liquid acid. Abdulmutallab created the explosive by mixing PETN with TAPN and other ingredients.

He was subsequently arrested and charged on six criminal counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder of 289 people. At the time of this writing, he is in U.S. custody, awaiting further legal proceedings. When convicted, he too will spend the rest of his life in prison with no hope of getting out of prison on parole and in addition he received another 90 years to be served consecutively. In other words, this terrorist will die in prison.

Ever since these two terrorists attempted to blow up the planes they were flying in, extremely stringent measures have been undertaken in the U.S. to prevent terrorists from bringing explosives on board passenger planes.

Newly installed full-body scanners at American airports give TSA employees the ability to use the powerful advanced imaging technology to see the naked bodies and genitalia of travelers. This result in body scans being installed into the security areas of international airports. These security scanners have become a popular alternative to body searches but the use of them have also prompted some privacy concerns. Whole-body imaging technologies can see through clothing to reveal metallic and non-metallic objects, including weapons or plastic explosives. They also reveal a person's silhouette and the outlines of underwear.
The U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has tested two technologies, including "millimeter wave" (MMW) technology which bounces radio-frequency waves off people to construct a 3-D image within a few seconds. TSA also temporarily leased four ‘backscatter’ units which use X-ray scanning, although the MMW method is currently faster.

The MMW and backscatter scans intentionally blur facial features, and the security officers viewing images sit in remote locations where they cannot identify the passengers. The systems also delete scanned images after the viewings and have ‘zero storage capability’.

More than 99 percent of passengers selected for Millimeter Wave screening opted to use the technology instead of the traditional pat-down procedure at Los Angeles International Airport. The same percentage was in favour of using the scanner at JFK International Airport.

Four hundred ninety-two full body scanners are expected to be in use by December 2010 and an additional 500 units will be shipped out in 2011. The alternative is reportedly an embarrassing full-body search.

It is beyond my understanding why some passengers object to their bodies being scanned this way. It’s not like someone is glaring at them with a big smile on his or her face while looking at the scanner’s images. The person looking at the images is only interest in looking for anything that appears as being unusual such as a knife, gun, and yes, even explosives hidden in their underwear or bras.

The real problem facing the persons studying the images is trying to detect a flat pack of an explosive between two layers of body fat of an extremely obese person or worse yet, trying to see the image of an explosive that has been previously inserted in a body orifice such as the terrorist’s anus. This is why the immediate area of the scanner should also include an explosive detector that can sense the explosive material.

It has been the practice that if the scanner looking at the image suspects that something is amiss; he notifies the security personnel nearby that a pat-down is required. Now this is where the issue of security gets really problematic.

In the past, the security officer merely waved a wand over the body of the passenger. But recently intensive pat-downs became necessary in some instances. Such pat-downs can be really intrusive. In my opinion, intrusive pat-downs are intrusive if any part of the officer’s hand touches the clothed passenger’s groin, butt or breasts. Many people feel embarrassed and object to being touched in those areas of their bodies. It is a natural feeling of revulsion to have a stranger groping with his or her hands in the areas of a person’s privates.

Small children are warned by their parents to fight back and scream if a stranger gropes them in the area of their privates. In one instance when such a pat-down was underway at an airport with a small child, she began screaming (like her parents told her) “Stop touching me!”

John Tyner, a 31-year-old software programmer, intending to board a plane at San Diego International Airport on November 16th 2010, refused the airport's "backscatter" machine (which takes a snapshot of items beneath a passenger's clothes) got into an altercation with a TSA agent after telling him he'd have him arrested if he touched his "junk" (his privates) and captured the entirety of the incident on his mobile phone.

The man whose viral video refusal to have his "junk touched" has made him something of a folk hero, appeared on Fox News' America Live to respond to TSA administrator John Pistole, among other things. While Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano maintain that the privacy of Tyner's privates is a small sacrifice to make, software engineer Tyner says his hardware is off-limits. What kind of jerk refers to his privates as ‘junk’ and ‘hardware’? Obviously a fool. He’s comparing his privates in the same way he compares his software programs he puts in his computer---junk and hardware.

He posted his feelings about this issue on his extended blog post saying that he viewed airport security policy as a sexual assault. He had previously said to the TSA patting him down. "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested," “He later said in part, "I stated that I would not allow myself to be subject to a molestation as a condition of getting on my flight."

In response to a video of the California man's dispute with airport security officials, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday it tries to be sensitive to individuals, but everyone getting on a flight must be screened. The video, in which software engineer John Tyner refuses an X-ray scan at the San Diego, California, airport, has sparked a debate over screening procedures.

The incident comes on the eve of an effort by pilots and flight attendants to protest the new machines. A group leading an effort to abandon such security measures have said that it is intended to allow flyers to "see for themselves how the government treats law-abiding citizens" It has called for a national boycott of the body scanners on November 24th when travelers across the U.S. are flying to their homes for their Thanksgiving dinners. I think a lot of passengers are going to miss their Thanksgiving dinner this year.

The collective bargaining agent organization for American Airlines pilots alleges the machines pose a radiation risk. Is he right?

Only one; the backscatter X-ray machines exposes individuals to ionizing radiation such as that used in common medical X-rays.

But the radiation levels are well below the threshold that could be considered a risk to an individual's health according to Dr. James Thrall of the American College of Radiology and chief of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He further said, "All of the concerns that we have about the medical use of X-rays really don't apply to these devices. The exposure is extremely low and the energy of the X-rays is also very, very low. When X-rays are used for medical imaging purposes, they have to be energetic enough to get through the human body. The X-rays used in the backscatter machines in airports have such low energy that they literally bounce off the skin. That is what backscatter implies."

The fact that the increased cosmic radiation dose rates at airliner altitudes gives every passenger a whole-body dose of radiation every minute that they are at cruising altitude and that dosage doesn’t really destroy all their cells, it surely must follow that the dose from the airport scanner is totally inconsequential. I believe that the use of body scanners at airports is a non issue.

What is a real issue is whether intrusive pat-downs are really necessary. In my opinion, they are. For example, many older citizens have to wear adult diapers or a colostomy (an external pouch in which they empty their bowels inadvertently). Some women have to use very thick sanitary napkins. I certainly see a problem with respect to Muslim women wearing a burqa (loose-fitting one-piece clothing that covers their entire bodies) being patted down. It is quite possible that a Muslim or any other terrorist could conceal explosives inside these items. However, waving an explosive sniffing device and metal detector in the area of their genitals , butts and breasts will solve that problem.

I can appreciate the concern that the TSA has about Muslim women getting on planes while wearing their burqas. In December 2007, Afghan intelligence agents in Jalalabad detained a woman, 55, hiding a bomb under her burqa. She had been followed from Kunar after a tip-off before her arrest. An official in Kunar's intelligence department explained that "She was carrying the suicide waistcoat for the Taliban.”

A Muslim woman who is thought to have become the first passenger to be stopped from boarding a flight; had refused to go through a full body scanner for religious reasons. The passenger was at Manchester Airport for a flight to Islamabad when she was selected at random to pass through the security screen. She was warned she would not be allowed to board the Pakistan International Airlines flight if she did not comply with the request. She decided to forfeit her ticket.

It is an unfortunate sign of our times but passenger safety has priority over a person’s religion. Many countries are now even prohibiting Muslim women (and any other women) to wear any clothing that covers their faces.

We are all now living in a terrible era in history where we have legitimate reasons to fear being killed by terrorists. If you object to these stringent procedures for determining if any passenger is carrying explosives with him or her on board the plane you are also boarding, consider what happened to the passengers and crew on the Air India flight when its plane exploded over the Atlantic on June 23rd, 1983 as a result of a terrorist’s bomb.

As the plane disintegrated at an altitude of 31,000 feet, all 329 people on aboard were killed, including 60 children aged below 10. Passengers and crew were flung out of the disintegrating plane. As their bodies continued flying forward at 600 miles an hour, they began suffocating to death for lack of air. They eventually began plummeting down towards the sea where the air at the lower altitude began rasping their skin off of them because of the speed they were falling. Their bodies finally fell into the ocean.

To those who object to being scanned or patted down by airport security, my message to you is quite simple. Find another way to travel.

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