Airport pat-down searches are no substitute for full-body scans

Religious and privacy objections aside, scans are much more effective, expert says

The expert I'm relying upon here has an obvious bias - his company is among those that make the full-body scanners causing such a public debate these days. And I have an obvious conflict of interest in relying upon his expertise: He's a relative.

Nonetheless, I trust his judgment and believe he's right.

In the news this morning is a story about objections to the full-body scanners being raised on religious grounds by organizations representing Muslims. From the Detroit Free Press:

"Saying that body scanners violate Islamic law, Muslim-American groups are supporting a 'fatwa' - a religious ruling - that forbids Muslims from going through the scanners at airports. ... One option offered to passengers who don't want to use the scanners would be a pat down by a security guard. The Muslim groups are urging members to undergo those instead."

The Transportation Safety Administration appears to be on board with that freedom of choice, telling the newspaper:

The TSA stressed that the body scanners are 'optional to all passengers.' Those who turn them down, 'will receive equivalent screening that may include a physical pat-down, hand-wanding, and other technologies. Physical pat-downs are performed by Transportation Security Officers of the same sex as the passenger in a private screening area, if the passenger requests."

Of course, the Muslim organizations are by no means alone in voicing objections to the full-body screenings, as privacy advocates of all stripes have voiced similar concerns.

The merits of those concerns aside, however, do hand pat-downs truly represent "equivalent screening?"

A close relative of mine works for a company that makes full-body scanners and he has traveled worldwide teaching government and private-sector customers how to use the machines. (He needs to remain nameless here because he's not authorized to speak for his employer.) I recalled having heard him discuss the relative merits of full-body scanning vs. hand pat-down searches, so I sent him a link to the Detriot story and asked if he thought pat-downs could be an adequate substitute for scans. His reply, in essence: Not on your life:

"I had been teaching the use of our system at an installed location.  We were scanning each other during the training.  One student would go into another area and place threat items on his/her body that only they knew about.  We would then scan them, viewing the image in a remote location from where the scanning system was, but in voice contact with a person at the scanning system.  We would see an item on the person in the image, and then tell the person with the 'subject' exactly where to 'pat down' to find the item.  They could not find it.  We would tell them to go back and look again, to no avail.  Pat searches can be very ineffective.

"I also saw a training video in the police academy where a test subject was searched by an officer, then the subject proceeded to remove about a dozen weapons from his body.  For a pat search to be truly effective, it needs to border on assault."

My guess is that would raise privacy concerns as well.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in