standard The new wave of airport security

IHRR has a programme of research dedicated to ‘Security and Risk’ and one element of this programme is thinking through how we are confronting new security regimes, such as those found in airports.

We live in technologically managed ‘risk environments.’  In some ways, everything is shaped around risk; it provides the margins, the guidelines for how we build a technological society.  Airports are the biggest example, particularly in post 9/11 US.  I recently visited the States — Detroit, Michigan.  Leaving from Detroit Metro Airport for London Heathrow I was in for a bit of a surprise, and whilst I recalled the past event of a passenger attempting to detonate an explosive device after his flight landed in Detroit from Amsterdam, I had no idea what I was in store for.

I had read about the new body scanning machines that envelope you in a metallic, glass case that seems like something out of the Empire in ‘Star Wars.’  Then, as you stand there waiting to proceed, the guard commands you to raise your hands in the air as if you had committed a crime, treated as a suspect simply because you want to get on a plane. The experience almost goes beyond what either Orwell or Huxley ever imagined in terms of technology-driven invasion of personal privacy under the assumption that we are all potentially guilty under these new technologies until proven innocent.

This is the new wave of airport security technology.  In all likelihood, we will be living with it for the rest of our lives, unless it is demonstrated that this degree of x-ray body scanning is unnecessary and doesn’t justify the expense.  In the US, where there is a clear obsession with technology in almost all of its many forms (with the exception of solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars), this is unlikely to happen, but in the UK where even redundant prisons have been cut to lower national debt, it’s a possibility.  Culture and economy, both social and political, shape how these technologies are used, if they are implemented at all, and this of course is a fascinating study in itself.

What happens if the technology ‘thinks’ that you might be guilty?  When I stepped out of the x-ray scanning machine, it wasn’t over yet, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) wasn’t satisfied with my image, and I had to be probed further.  I watched the guard talk into his CB radio, ‘we got an anomaly,’ he said.

I couldn’t help but crack a bit of smile, but it quickly turned to a frown as I realised he would have to use the ‘more intrusive’ pat down search.  And where was this ‘anomaly’ detected? ”I will need to touch the buttocks,’ said the guard.  ‘The what… the buttocks?’  I said hoping that this was a mere euphemism or metaphor for something else, but it wasn’t, he meant ‘my buttocks.’  As the guard searched my body for ‘anomalies’ it was soon over within a few minutes.  What was the ‘anomaly’ that set off the machine that moved me from suspect to really suspect?  Pocket lint.  It was tucked up underneath my seat pockets, it was hardly noticeable, but the body scanning machine didn’t like it.  I shrugged deeply.

‘Step over here please,’ said the guard.  ‘OK, I said, do what you have to do, I need to go,’ I felt I was being more than cooperative at this point and knew that deep down this was not only a waste of my time, but theirs as well.  The guard had me hold out my hands palms open then applied a clear, odourless liquid to them.  He then placed some of the liquid rubbed of from my hands onto a machine, after it beeped in recognition, or gave a message of approval, I forget which, I was free to go.  I thought maybe this was some kind of chemical test for gun powder or other explosive residue or maybe even drugs.  I wasn’t sure and after going through this ordeal, I didn’t care.  Soon afterwards though, I realised that this form of airport security, as it becomes more refined, could likely be accepted without people having second thoughts about it, indeed it seems to already be coming to this.  The more seemingly invisible technology becomes, the more people live with it, but something of this scale will take time; hopefully it will be enough time to allow people to re-think what it is we are doing — if we are creating a world safe from ‘terrorism’ or one in which the fear of terrorism (and authority) becomes a permanent fixture within our everyday lives.  If the latter, have the terrorists won?

There is an internet-based or Web 2.0 culture surrounding many of these incidents, most of which take place in the US and involve the TSA.  Many people capture video of procedures at security checkpoints with mobile phones or other forms of compact recording equipment as it does not appear to violate US federal law.  Even CNN, owned by media conglomerate Time Warner Inc., features information about how people can literally combat surveillance with surveillance on their website.  In response to the risks posed by advanced security technologies and technical search procedures to their personal safety and civil liberties, people are able to record what happens to them.  Blogging in particular is an outlet for how people can communicate their experience, but whether it leads anywhere of courses is another matter.  Do fewer people travel because of it?  Do bureaucracies like the TSA receive countless complaints?  And if they do does it or will it in any way shape future policy or security procedures?

This video was taken by a chap who refused to be placed in a body scanner and was escorted from a security check point inside San Diego Airport, CA USA.

This one, posted on an Economist blog, appears to be produced by, a controversial, ‘libertarian conservative’ website in the US founded by radio talk show host Alex Jones.  It is a surveillance video of a young mother who is detained for not wanting to have her breast milk passed through an x-ray scanner in Phoenix Airport, AZ USA.


    1. I think this is definitely of interest, although quite difficult in practice. But I think a direct response is needed to how we deal with issues of surveillance and privacy in the future. Living in a technological society has its clear benefits, but security shouldn’t come at the price of individual liberty and the question of what we are being kept safe from is far from clear because instead of identifying the problem of terrorism and what leads to terrorist actions or activities and seeking to resolve the conflicts, it has merely been used as an excuse for more ‘security’ and control with little if any feedback or assessment.

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