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Security Experts Reconsider Scanners After Attempted Attack

December 29, 2009

U.S. lawmakers say the use of body scanners at airport security points is likely to be revisited after a would-be attacker smuggled explosives aboard a plane on Christmas Day, AFP reported.

The controversial machines, which can scan beneath clothing to detect items that may be hidden from ordinary view, are considered effective and have been tested at numerous international airports.

Most security experts say the scanners likely would have detected the explosives that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was hiding as he boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam last week.

The attacker onboard the Airbus 330 had a combination of a flammable liquids he was carrying in a syringe and an explosive powder known as pentaerythritol or PETN that was sewn into his underwear.

But experts say the metal detectors that passengers ordinarily step through as their luggage is being x-rayed would not have detected either component.

British Interior Minister Alan Johnson said Monday he would consider installing full body scanners at British airports “as quickly as possible.”

The Transportation Security Administration said such scanners are already in use at 19 airports in the United States and a handful of courthouses and prisons.

The scanners use radio frequencies to scan underneath clothing and produce a 3D image of the individual’s body ““ though it does not produce an image of the naked body.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates are concerned because it does faithfully reproduce individual curves hidden beneath clothing, from the shape of a breast to a roll of fat.

Many European airports have tested the device, but its use was halted after the European Union expressed concerns and protested a plan to install the scanners at airports throughout the EU.

Martine Roure, an EU representative, said the project would have been “disproportionate to submit all passengers to this type of check in the name of the fight against terrorism.”

However, passengers and crew prevented Abdulmutallab from carrying out the attack and now lawmakers worldwide could change their minds about the body scanners.

But traditional security measures simply would not be able to detect the sort of explosive Abdulmutallab was carrying, according to Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

“There is no other way, except for a body scan, to detect it. Even the secondary screening measures sometimes used at airports would have failed,” he told AFP.

Hoffman said if the explosive PETN were sealed extremely tight in plastic, dogs wouldn’t have picked it up.

“It is virtually impossible to know what is concealed beneath clothing without the scanners,” Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines, told AFP.

Jimmie Carol Oxley, the co-director of the Center of Excellence in Explosive Detection, Mitigation, Response and Characterization at the University of Rhode Island, said anything is hard to detect if you’re not looking for it.

He added that airport security already has machines that can detect PETN.

“If you go through the airport and they ever pull you over for your carry-on and they swab your carry-on, they can pick up that, those machines detect it,” he said.

On top of all of the controversy, Laird said the machines also cost around a million dollars, 20 times more than standard X-ray machines.

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