The AP reports today about a DHS report that revealed in 2005 that existing x-ray machines at passenger checkpoints are useless for detecting explosives in shoes:
X-ray machines that screen airline passengers’ shoes cannot detect explosives, according to a Homeland Security Department report on aviation screening.
….In its April 2005 report, “Systems Engineering Study of Civil Aviation Security Phase I,” the Homeland Security Department concluded that images on X-ray machines don’t provide the information necessary to detect explosives.
Machines used at most airports to scan hand-held luggage, purses, briefcases and shoes have not been upgraded to detect explosives since the report was issued.
….The Homeland Security report said that “even a 1/4-inch insole of sheet explosive” could create the kind of blast that reportedly brought down Pan Am flight 103, the airliner that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people in the air and on the ground.
“To help close this gap, the percentage of shoes subjected to explosives inspection should be significantly increased,” the report said.
The Homeland Security report recommends that explosives trace detection, or ETD, be used on the shoes and hands of passengers when the screeners determine they must be checked more thoroughly.
“Within the current state of the art, they afford the only meaningful explosives detection capability at the checkpoint,” the report said.
This story adds to a growing torrent of critical news pieces looking back at DHS’s effort to develop the next generation of aviation screening equipment over the past 2-3 years, and finding unaddressed vulnerabilities. Ultimately, I think there are three complementary explanations for this reality, which have formed something of a vicious circle:
- DHS has underfunded R&D and procurement of new aviation screening technology.
- The devices available to DHS have not been robust and/or effective enough for full-scale deployment.
- DHS has deemed these aviation security threats to be relatively low-risk in comparison with other homeland security threats.
So what’s the right solution to this conundrum? Is it to throw money at these screening challenges? Probably yes at the margin, but only for technologies and systems whose security benefits have been well-scrutinized. It makes sense to speed up the deployment cycles for newer proven technologies such as puffer machines and millimeter wave scanners. And it might be useful to reexamine the technology adoption process within DHS for aviation security, and find ways to remove unnecessary bureaucratic checkpoints. Finally, more attention needs to be paid to the integration of the aviation screening system with the rest of the homeland security enterprise, with the goal of providing better intelligence and enhanced capabilities that can improve the screening process.