CST Blog

Security: scanner mania vs. profiling

6 January 2010

The failed “Christmas Day bomb plot” of Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit has led to heated debate concerning what could, would or should have been done to prevent the attack from having occurred.

Thankfully, the debate has matured somewhat from February 2003, when the deployment of troops at Heathrow was primarily interpreted by many as state scaremongering; but the complex argument of human rights versus security persists. How do we balance the right of the innocent individual not to be blown up in mid-air, versus the right of the innocent individual not to suffer from invasive security checks? This leads seamlessly into the next conundrum: what actually is the best means of security? Should every single passenger be treated as a potential terrorist, and be subject to hours of queuing and checking - or should such treatment only be applied (and indeed intensified) to potential terrorists who are singled out from the crowd?

There is an unfortunate (if understandable) tendency for security procedures to reflect the last attack, rather than the next one. So, for example, since the failed “liquid bomb plot” of 2006, we have faced restrictions on carrying liquids aboard aircraft. Since the failed “shoe bomber plot” of 2001, we have had to place our shoes through X ray scanners. This latest attack has been light-heartedly referred to as the “pants bomber plot”, but rather than place our underwear through X ray scanners, it appears that full body scans will now be employed. It is perhaps a moot point as to whether or not a full body scan is preferable to having to literally strip off every time you wish to board a plane, but the question of where this trajectory may end is becoming more pressing than ever.

What, however, of profiling? On the Independent website, Talal Rajab of the Quilliam Foundation counter-extremism think tank, discusses profiling in the context of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism; and correctly points out the very wide variety of geographic origins, racial types and age range of such terrorists. He also notes that both men and women can be, and indeed are, terrorists.

The suspect in the "Christmas Day bomb plot" is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, and former President of the Islamic student society at University College London. Those who would instigate simplistic profiling on the basis of the most recent plot need to consider the parameters of their logic: what part of Abdulmutallab's identity and personal history is it that we ought to be profiling? Abdulmutallab's father visited the US Embassy in Nairobi on 19 November 2009 and told the CIA of his concerns. This is one case study that surely shows the need for join-the-dots intelligence, rather than an extra hour at the airport for families going off on New Year breaks, or an extra ten hours at the airport for stigmatised young Muslim or Nigerian men. As Tim Stevens writes on the blog of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence

The failure to integrate already extensive global intelligence networks is not the fault of law-abiding citizens, and we should not be held accountable for the actions of a few extremists. The problem is one that will be familiar to students of Information Theory 101: information does not equal knowledge.

The argument for smart profiling is made further in a lengthy and very interesting article on Der Spiegel's English language website, headed Scanner Mania vs. Profiling - Are Traditional Security Methods the Best Path to Air Safety? The article begins with a salient reminder that the first liquid bomb plot was successfully perpetrated in November 1987 by the (female) North Korean intelligence agent, Kim Hyun Hee, who killed 115 people in the attack on Korean Airlines Flight 858; notes Israel's use of behavioural profiling; and asks some pointed questions about airport security, what motivates changes in security procedures and how effective these procedures are.

It argues that terrorist attacks are far more likely to be thwarted by policing and/or technical incompetence on the part of the terrorists, than by security screening procedures and in particular examines the history of liquid explosives and security responses to them: including the fact that liquids are not actually checked for content, only for size, and that any number of permitted 100ml quantities could be added to one another once carried separately onto a flight. This leads the authors to acerbically state

If a group of Islamists that was discovered in the United Kingdom in 2006 had hatched a terrorist plot to drive the Kuffar, or infidels, to insanity, it would have come a long way. As a result of its foiled plot, the world is now confronted with liquid checks that have little to do with reason or even logic.

The contrast between the security checks now enacted at airports, and the absence of security on other forms of mass transport could hardly be greater. This is not to say that every bus stop, or underground and overground train station should be fitted with X rays and body scanners, and it is most certainly not to say that airports and airplanes should be insecure environments. Rather, it is to remind us that by far the worst time to prevent a terrorist attack is in the moments prior to its being perpetrated. Overt security at airports and elsewhere can only be the final and most visible tip of the counter-terrorism iceberg. It is an iceberg that should be comprised of policing and joined up intelligence that utilises a full range of sources: including suspicious behavioural patterns and the pleas of parents who can see that their children's minds have turned to poison.

Read More