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Mind-Reading Systems Could Change Air Security

The AP via YellowBrix

January 08, 2010

Rafi Ron, the former security director at Israel’s famously tight Ben Gurion International Airport who now is a consultant for Boston’s Logan International Airport, says U.S. airports also need to be careful not to overcommit to securing passenger entry points at airports, forgetting about the rest of the field.

“Don’t invest all your efforts on the front door and leave the back door open,” said Ron.

While many experts agree the United States could adopt some Israeli methods, few believe the overall model would work here, in part because of the sheer number of U.S. airports _ more than 400, versus half a dozen in Israel.

Also, the painstaking searches and interrogations would create delays that could bring U.S. air traffic to a standstill. And many Americans would find the often intrusive and intimidating Israeli approach repugnant.


PROFILING

Some argue that policies against profiling undermine security.

Baum, who is also managing director of Green Light Limited, a London-based aviation security company, agrees profiling based on race and religion is counterproductive and should be avoided. But he argues that a reluctance to distinguish travelers on other grounds _ such as their general appearance or their mannerisms _ is not only foolhardy but dangerous.

“When you see a typical family _ dressed like a family, acts like a family, interacts with each other like a family … when their passport details match _ then let’s get them through,” he said. “Stop wasting time that would be much better spent screening the people that we’ve get more concerns about.”

U.S. authorities prohibit profiling of passengers based on ethnicity, religion or national origin. Current procedures call for travelers to be randomly pulled out of line for further screening.

Scrutinizing 80-year-old grandmothers or students because they might be carrying school scissors can defy common sense, Baum said.

“We need to use the human brain _ which is the best technology of them all,” he said.

But any move to relax prohibitions against profiling in the U.S. would surely trigger fierce resistance, including legal challenges by privacy advocates.


PRIVATIZATION

What if security were left to somebody other than the federal government?

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank, says airlines should be allowed take charge of security at airports.

Especially since 9/11, the trend has been toward standardizing security procedures to ensure all airports follow the best practices. But Harper argues that decentralizing the responsibility would result in a mix of approaches _ thereby making it harder for terrorists to use a single template in planning attacks.

“Passengers, too, prefer a uniform experience,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily the best security. It’s better if sometimes we take your laptop out, sometimes we’ll pat you down. Those are things that will really drive a terrorist batty _ as if they’re not batty already.”

Harper concedes that privatizing airport security is probably wishful thinking, and the idea has not gotten any traction. He acknowledges it would be difficult to allay fears of gaping security holes if it were left to each airline or airport owner to decide its own approach.


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