Little Progress Made on Airport Security Screening Technology

By Laura Spadanuta, Assistant Editor

The Washington Post reports that six years after 9-11, little has changed as far as technology used at airport checkpoints. 

The sluggish pace of technological innovation and deployment has left holes in checkpoint security that could easily be exploited by terrorists, according to government officials and outside experts. Congressional investigators reported last year that they were able to smuggle bomb components through checkpoints despite new security measures. Other investigative reports questioned the government's efforts to get emerging technology into the field.

"The snail's pace of deploying new technology is unacceptable," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We remain vulnerable because we have not kept up with technological innovation."

Although the article states that TSA is set to begin the first major federal investment in checkpoint technology in 30 years, with plans to spend about $250 million on new devices, it notes that it could take years for any new technology to be implemented.

The TSA did buy 200 "puffer" machines a few years ago from General Electric and Smiths Detection. These machines blast air on travelers and analyze particles that float off to scan for hints of a bomb. However, by 2006, officials found the machine was unusable because it took too long to screen passengers and because of maintenance concerns.

Another technology, the "backscatter X-ray device," scanned passengers with x-rays that provided a photo of what's underneath the person's clothing. The deployment of these machines has been continually delayed due to privacy concerns.

The article also notes that there are still no devices that can detect liquid explosives.

Editor's Note: While much of the criticism is fair, it should be noted that there are limits to the speed at which technology can advance to meet new threats, and that's not necessarily anyone's fault. At the 2005 ASIS Seminar and Exhibits, for example, one official with a company that makes airport screening equipment noted that he had not seen this level of technological advancement in the field in the past. Before 9-11, he noted, there were periods when the technology did not change for five years. Now, it changes daily, he noted. That faster pace may be part of the problem--leading to deployment of equipment like the puffers that, then, isn't ready for prime time. But the general public and the media seem to want it both ways--we criticize the government for moving slowly and testing and then for deploying new systems too quickly and finding that there are problems. We might have to expect some level of failure when we are pushing the envelop to get new systems in the field faster. And we might also have to accept the fact that new breakthroughs, such as for detecting liquid bombs, may take more time than we like regardless of how much money we put into R&D--Sherry Harowitz, SM Editor-in-Chief



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