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Why more airport security doesn't stop terrorist attacks

Airport security measures change in response to every plot, and the Christmas Day terrorist attack is no different. But use of screening technologies hasn't kept up with new terrorist methods.

By Staff writer / December 29, 2009

An airline passenger walks towards a screening station as a US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official looks on at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, on Tuesday.

Mike Segar/Reuters

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Washington

Just as with previous terror attacks, the failed Christmas Day bombing is already changing air travel security, from more pat downs – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid explosives in his underpants – to in-flight restrictions on laptops.

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The changes follow a post-9/11 pattern of introducing new screening methods in response to new kinds of attack – scanning shoes after the 2001 shoe bomber attack and insisting on 3 oz. plastic bottles after a foiled 2006 plot to blow up British airlines. But aviation experts say there are limits to throwing hardware at the problem, even if high-tech fixes could be developed quickly.

“We’re still focusing on keeping prohibited items off planes, but that calculus is working against us,” says Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron in Ohio. “The terrorists are constantly developing more sophisticated attacks. They are hyper-motivated, they’re not going to stop, and they have a fetish for aviation security.”

Screening technology can’t keep up

Since the 9/11 attacks, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Department of Homeland Security have spent nearly $800 million trying to deploy higher-tech checkpoint screening technologies. These range from an explosives trace-detection portal, halted in 2006 after cost overruns, to scanners for bottled liquids, shoes, casts, and prostheses, as well as a Whole Body Imager. None of these systems have been deployed yet, according to an October 2009 report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, the range of explosive devices that terrorists are developing is outstripping the ability of screening systems to catch them. Last August, an alleged suicide bomber who had explosives implanted in his body injured Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Even controversial full body scans don’t pick up such hidden devices, Mr. Thomas says.

“To think we’re going to be able to detect all these IEDs [improvised explosive devices] at check points is futile,” he says.

New profiling methods

Instead, Thomas says authorities should focus on blocking access to the people most deemed to be a threat, which requires more effective profiling and challenging the TSA approach “that everybody who comes to the airport is treated the same – as a potential terrorist, until they are cleared.”

Cribbing from the Israeli airline model, airline safety specialists are implementing a wide range of behavioral profiling techniques.

“With racial profiling, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Don’t look at race or clothes, look at the person behind the eyes,” says Terry Sheridan, a corporate fraud analyst in Malanga, Australia, who consults with airlines on emotional profiling. “There are flaws there that most people would ignore. Once you’ve got a flaw or an inconsistency or a lie, that’s when all the alarm bells ring.”

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