Security

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Flight frustrations

Are toothpaste bombs really a big threat?

Written in my home office and despatched to silicon.com from Stansted Airport amid a sea of confused and tired humanity via a commercial wi-fi service

On 9/10 I flew out of Boston on a flight that was hijacked the next day and on 7/7 I had passed through several of the bombsites only hours before. So what of 8/10? Thankfully, and by sheer luck, I have not been flying over the past 10 days, nor am I flying over the next 10! So I missed the latest big bombing attempt and the ensuing chaos at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports.

Pity the poor souls stood in line for four or five hours (in the rain) not knowing if they were actually going to fly. Pity the baggage handlers, security staff, police, aircrews and airlines trying to cope with the high state of emergency. And all this was exacerbated by the inadequate facilities of airports that normally operate at well over 100 per cent of their full design capacity.

By and large, people stayed calm, cool, collected and tolerant of the situation for the first two or three days but after four or five patience was wearing thin. Incomprehensible limitations and rulings on checked baggage and carry-ons just fuelled irritation upon irritation.

After 9/11 it took weeks for normality to return. After 7/7 normality was in evidence the next day. But hey, the UK population has had decades of training on how to respond to terrorists provided by the IRA and their ilk. These incidents taught us how to assess the reality of risk through real events and facts instead of panicked media reports.

So what went wrong on 8/10? Unless we get on the inside of the security community I suspect we will never know. But I would guess the actual size and scale of the attack was bigger, or perceived to be bigger, than we have seen reported or assumed.

For sure the reaction of the government and its servants was fast, conclusive and very effective indeed in the initial phase of preventing a flying bomb escaping the UK. It was also effective in identifying and rounding up suspects. We can only assume there was a lingering uncertainty and reasonable doubt that prevented an early relaxation of the state of alert.

But everyone is prompted to ask the obvious - could more have been done to rapidly restore normal travel service? Well, possibly!

Here are my thoughts on the topic...

First, the use of disparate fluids, powders or other materials to build explosive devices really is chemistry 101 and shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

Second, detecting inflammable and explosive materials in isolation, combination or component parts is relatively easy to do and all the technology is available. But then again so is common sense, and it is easy to train security screeners to look out for and identify such potential threats. On the other hand, stopping pilots taking their toothpaste and lip salve on board seems a little bit irrational and over the top!

But no matter how much technology is deployed and how well the screeners are trained, something and/or someone will slip through eventually - nothing is foolproof. This is especially true if all travellers are treated as presenting the same potential threat level.

In engineering terms what is required is a matched filter - and in this case we actually know in advance what we are looking for. In social terms it is called shelving political correctness and applying common sense! Just bring together everyone's passport, social, travel, work, health records (and more) and it quickly becomes obvious which individuals might pose a serious threat and those unlikely to be so. That way time money and effort can be expended in the right areas and the probability of success is magnified enormously. And make no mistake we are dealing with probability here!

We have all forms of biometrics to help identify individuals - facial, hand, eye, fingerprint and voice recognition, for starters. Then there are many others such as the way we walk, type, mannerisms, choice of clothing and so on, all of which can often be recognised by machines to a higher degree of accuracy than humans.

I think we can safely assume that the police and security service have a list of hot suspects who should be rendered readily identifiable at all airports. Again straightforward electronic solutions are possible and available here too.

We should also include on our list all known family, friends and associates of all the hot suspects. These can be identified with ease and afforded extra attention from the point they book a ticket until they arrive at the airport.

In short we need to have our electronic guard up at all times and make the human shield and restrictions variable with the threat level.

All of this will require investment, a lot of investment. It will also dictate far more check-in lines, security tracks, trained people and physical space for covert observation by people and machines. Snag is, the current UK airport building stock, like the number of runways and access road infrastructure, are woefully inadequate and cannot be fixed quickly. A building and transformation programme initiated today would take at lease five years to impact the present problems, and frankly it is unlikely to ever happen! So the present travel nightmare will most likely continue for a very long time.

Right now flying out of the UK on business looks to be impossibly time inefficient and expensive. No professional traveller checks a bag into the hold and some airlines are not even allowing laptops in the cabin! Flying time is valuable working time and not having a laptop available is a major frustration for many professionals. The next frustration is waiting for your bag at the end destination and then finding all the cabs have been taken by those ahead of you - even more valuable time wasted. But worse, a lot of flying means your bag will be lost and a multi-hop trip means it will never catch up with you!

Luckily I am not flying for another couple of weeks and if the present UK airport baggage constraints persist I may have to fly Norwich to Schiphol, or take the Chunnel to Paris. I just cannot afford the current levels of wasted time before and during a flight just because UK BAA can't get its act together. Interestingly, the time difference introduced by such a dog-leg is minimal given the present UK airport chaos. But even better, the seat prices are considerably cheaper out of continental airports.

This last security incident looks as though it may have changed my travel habits forever.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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