A traveller receives instructions from a TSA agent while being scanned in a body scanner at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Monday, Nov. 22, 2010.
The pre-Thanksgiving standoff between the Transportation Security Administration and some airline passengers over the federal agency’s new screening techniques has left many industry observers wondering: What’s next?
For now, the full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs are here to stay, according to the TSA. But in the future, air travelers could see additional biometric screening or smarter body scanners — and possibly one day a return to pre-pat-down security protocols.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Travel Association called for the creation of a "trusted traveler" program for airline passengers, which it says would result in more secure, efficient and effective screening. Under this system, passengers would be screened for security risks before arriving at the airport, reducing bottlenecks and diverting security resources to higher-risk passengers.
“The vast majority of the traveling public poses little threat to our nation’s security, yet the current approach subjects every passenger to the same security procedures,” said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “A trusted traveler program would allow us to focus more security where it is most needed.”
The TSA has already conducted a pilot study for a trusted traveler program, said spokesman Greg Soule. Be he said the agency plans to remain focused on the new scanners.
"Our goal is for our officers to use the best technology available, coupled with informed security measures to mitigate the threat," Soule said.
In Congressional testimony last month, TSA Administrator John Pistole said the agency plans to deploy more advanced-imaging technology capable of scanning air travelers for nonmetallic devices. The agency has already deployed more than 400 machines and plans to have nearly 1,000 of them in airports by the end of 2011.
Pistole also said upgrades to the scanners would be respectful of passengers’ privacy.
"I’m also very interested in the next generation of advanced-imaging technology, which is the automated target recognition, which basically has a stick figure, or a blob, if you will — two options," he told senators at the hearing. "The scanners would detect an anomaly that would show up as a box on the scanner. And then the pat-down would just focus on that area."
Zero radiation technology
Besides privacy, one of the most common concerns about current advanced-imaging technology is radiation.
Millivision, a security company based in South Deerfield, Mass., has a solution that may make an appearance at an airport near you. The next-generation system uses something called passive millimeter wave technology, which essentially means travelers are not exposed to any radiation. At the same time, the machines would address travelers’ concerns about images through greater privacy controls.
"An effective passive millimeter wave scanner that eliminates the concern for privacy and safety, while delivering the detection attributes required, will significantly reduce or eliminate the need for these controversial, aggressive pat-downs," said Paul Nicholas, Millivision's president.
Airport security in the future also will feature more than just scanners, said Craig Chambers, the president of Cernium Corp.
He points to a pilot project in Dallas and Seattle using his company’s technology that monitors people and objects that are headed the wrong way — going into secure areas when they should be exiting.
"As screening technologies continue to develop, we can anticipate an increased number of automated solutions that will allow security personnel to focus their efforts even more on potential threats and reducing response time to incidents," he said.
Less is more
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the TSA recently over the new full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs, including:
"Changing this policy, or even backtracking, doesn’t mean we’d suddenly be flying on a wing and a prayer," consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote on his blog. "In fact, better use of available intelligence alone would have stopped last year’s Christmas underwear bomber from flying to the USA. Indiscriminate and inefficient dragnet-type security checks of whole populations, if anything, make us less safe by focusing on the wrong things."
Collection of measures
Many observers believe it will be a combination of all of the above that will define the future of aviation security.
Technology will improve, addressing travelers’ concerns about radiation and privacy. And airports will get better gadgets to protect air travelers.
"But full-body scanners are not going to go away," said aviation attorney Gerald Sterns. "They are going to be indispensible, given the current approach used by TSA and the failure of the system to come up with something that will pre-screen and pre-vet a large portion of the traveling public who pose no threat."
Nor, he said, are pat-downs going to be dropped any time soon.
"They’re going to be necessary, up to a point, because these new scanners pick up most anything, down to and including a handkerchief stuffed in a back pocket, which needs to be checked."
But will we be safer? No, according to security expert Bruce Schneier.
None of the new measures — not the scans, not the pat-downs, not even anything that’s being seriously considered as an alternative — meaningfully improve airport security, he said.
"They’re more a result of politicians and government appointees capitulating to a public that demands that something must be done," he said. "Even when nothing should be done."