The road to hell: you know what it's paved with.

I said in my last update that a lot of the IEEE Homeland Security conference attendees were acting like they were at an ACLU convention: that was behind the scenes. The scenes themselves were the stuff of an ACLUerâ''s worst nightmares. I call to your attention the panel on air traffic safety (this was the same one that included the naked pictures). One presenterâ''s talk was titled, optimistically, "A new concept of airport security screening." Now, granted, I went in expecting a lot, so I was set up to be underwhelmed.

But the underwhelmage was simply egregious. An Analogic Corp. presenter itemized the offenses of current security screening practices very well: you have to remove your laptop, your cell phone, your shoes, and your 3-1-1s (yes, the allowed amount of liquids in a baggy has been converted into jargon); you have to wait in line at a metal detector; and you have to wait while someone whisks a wand over the surface area of your body.

Her objection to all this? Not what I was expecting: it takes up too much airport personnel, hence money.

Her solution shaved 10 TSA personnel off a shift by multiplying the invasiveness by 10.

Step 1: Do extensive background checks on everyone who is traveling. (Do they do this already? I got all itchy with paranoia sitting there in the dark audience.) Step 2: Feed background checks on all passengers into a database that tells you the likelihood of a specific passengerâ''s desire to blow the plane to smithereens. Step 3: Passengers can now breeze through a metal detector that expects them to be carrying a laptop and a cell phone. Since "most passengers are low risk," the Analogic rep said, you're saving time by reducing false alarms. A last minute ticket would put you on higher alert mode. Last-minute business traveler? No problem! Your frequent flier status will cancel out your "last-minute ticket" alert.

Someone piped up from the audience: "So if I forget my laptop, does that mean I'm a security risk?"

Snark aside, someone posed a good question: What happens if one passenger needs help? Now, instead of occupying 10 percent of available personnel, that person's by-no-means-unreasonable needs have 33 percent of the personnel tied up, presumably creating an even bigger bottleneck. But staff has been reduced, and yes, money has been saved.

It's easy to see how the privacy invasion happens: once you invest in one technology, you start to see the loopholes. Every technology can be spoofed or cheated in countless ways. If plugging those holes is your main priority, a little something like taking naked pictures of passengers is going to seem irrelevant. This focus on one thin sliver of reality seems to plague engineers across the board (take, for example, the engineer at the Trinity test, the debut of the A-bomb into human history, the dawn of the nuclear age! "What were you thinking right before?" "I sure hope my detonator works!").

It wasnâ''t all bad: The one actually quite good idea that emerged from all this was her suggestion of a bin return system, like the kind you see at bowling alleys that brings your bowling ball back to you automatically. That would get rid of, she said, "the bin return personnel." Another eureka moment for me in the back: I never realized that these people are there specifically to return bins. I thought they had other duties, but intermittently turned their attention to the pileup of bins. I was wrong.

But that is seriously picayune compared to the promise of the title. I just can't countenance elevating the recycled bin return system to the status of "new concept in airport security.â''

The best question, though, was whether any of this had been simulated or modeled on a computer. The answer was a resounding no.

Analogic, indeed.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement