In push for security, 'convenience' prevails

So far, America opts for solutions that are fast and cheap. Are they enough?

For now, forget an expensive, flashy, James-Bond approach to protecting the nation against terrorists.

Four months after Sept. 11, America is focusing on homeland-security systems and gadgets that meet these criteria: They're as cheap, fast, and unobtrusive as possible.

Indeed, Americans clearly yearn to boost security. Yet some of the more high-tech security solutions may be years away. And in the interim, Americans don't want to be cowed by terrorism - or lose too much of the ease and convenience of life before Sept. 11. This approach, however, has some experts worrying that new safety measures won't be sufficient.

Witness the airlines' strategy for meeting today's federal baggage-search deadline. They're mostly using a bag-matching system, which ensures that every bag in a plane's belly has an owner in a seat above. The other options - bomb-sniffing machines or dogs - are slower, more expensive, and more effective.

And rather than killing potential anthrax contamination by irradiating mail - which is slow and damaging - one high-profile new safety device 'sniffs' for contaminants, making it cheaper and faster than many of its competitors.

"People are pretty impatient," says Philip Anderson, a homeland-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

The concern is that if airports are clogged up by many new security measures, "you're going to slow the process to the point where it's going to be very difficult to use commercial aviation as a means of travel," he says. The same goes for ports, borders, and other security bottlenecks.

Clearly, the national need for speed is sparking development of exotic devices that would impress even James Bond's gadget guy, "Q".

There's a walk-through wind-tunnel device that would detect any bomb-residue particles being whisked off the clothing or suitcases of airline passengers.

There's a neutron-scanning device that can distinguish between a bottle of water and a bottle of liquid explosives.

And, for rail safety, there's a giant X-ray machine that can scan trains as they rumble along at 15 m.p.h.

Yet these and other high-tech devices are years away from being deployed and may be either too unwieldy or too expensive to succeed in today's marketplace. That's one reason so-called EZ-pass systems are suddenly hot.

On the US-Canada border, authorities are expanding the NEXUS program, which allows frequent crossers to speed across the border in their own travel lane. Users swipe a card that displays their picture which is verified by an officer in the booth. Other crossers may have to wait hours.

Airport EZ-pass

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is expanding its INSPASS program in the nation's airports. Applicants must prove they are citizens and have no criminal background or other risky history. Precise measurements - so called biometric scans - are taken of their hands.

Then, when they enter the country, passengers confirm their identities by scanning their palm at a kiosk. They typically speed through customs in 15 to 20 seconds.

About 140 companies and groups are in a race to develop a similar system to be used for domestic air travel.

The winner may mimic a system at Israel's Ben-Gurion airport that charges customers about $20 for express passage. US airlines are said to be interested in the revenue-generating possibilities.

The great usefulness of such systems is that they weed out the low security risks - and allow authorities to focus on higher-risk people.

But they're far from foolproof. "Who's doing the background checks and how thorough are they?" asks Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security in Cupertino, Calif.

Another hot technology: Profiling by using databases. Currently, the FAA uses a rudimentary profiling program called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System to identify risky passengers based on itinerary, whether they're traveling alone, and other factors. Passengers don't even know they're being evaluated - and so aren't hassled by the process.

Experts say a more-advanced program could be far more useful. It could fuse together data about a passenger's criminal history, international phone-calls, and other information.

Instant checks

It could also check if a passenger had had their identification stolen recently. Such a screen might have stopped some of the Sept. 11 terrorists, who reported their passports stolen in order to get clean IDs that did not show their previous trips to Afghanistan.

Such profiling clearly risks invading passengers' privacy. But the appeal is that it doesn't hugely impede airline travel.

Another quick-and-cheaper technology is a new mail-security system developed by Lockheed Martin called BioMailSolutions. One of the many systems being considered for use by the postal service, it's essentially an air-tight chamber that mail passes through.

The machine constantly 'sniffs' the air for hazardous materials. If it detects any, it shuts down the mail-sorting system. Unlike irradiation technology, it doesn't destroy certain computer components and, unless the alarm is triggered, it doesn't slow the normal pace of mail sorting.

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