Bomb Detection Using X-RAY Technologies: IS THAT A BOMB IN YOUR PANTS OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD TO SEE ME?

I don’t wish to make light of as serious a situation as a terrorist attack on another American commercial airliner, but if governments in the United States and the Netherlands are offering as a response to the failed terrorist bombing of a Detroit bound airliner the carting out and dusting off of “Back Scatter”, “Full Body Imaging” and “Puffer” technologies to thwart the introduction of bomb making compounds onto airliners, I might as well audition for Saturday Night Live along with them. There is more than one reason that machines that look through clothing for weapons, though available for several years, haven’t been used, and modesty is the other one! While great for revealing weapons stored away from plan view under a passenger’s garments, technologies that provide a visual look at what is being secreted away under (or sewn inside of) the underwear, don’t tell us that what is being viewed is an explosive. And while so called “puffer” and “sniffer” technologies are designed to tell specifically whether the explosive compound they are programmed to identify is present, unless it is being carried on the surface of that which is being examined, it too is of little help.

Now in all fairness to the scientists and manufacturers of the technologies now being planned for introduction at airports here and abroad, the technologies are fine when used for that for which they are designed: to identify that which can be seen, swabbed, or sniffed, but viewing the outline of the bundle sewn into Abdulmuttalab shorts – conjures up endless vaudeville one liners (see the title of this commentary) to say nothing of other issues regarding the human condition that I leave to the reader. In short, unless we are looking for visually identifiable weapons, containers of a suspicious nature or obvious bomb paraphernalia, we are about to embark on course of action likely to produce results not helpful in the quest of discovering explosives carried aboard airliners by passengers. Many things may be carried or worn under over garments for reasons ranging from medical to cosmetic, and the further examination of them at the screening station in an airport, even to ensure that an explosive compound is not present, is an unworkable prospect. We need to employ a better and more effective way to identify the presence of explosives before they are wrapped up for delivery, and such technology is not beyond our genius.

Not too long ago, I was invited to witness a demonstration of a new technology designed to identify the presence of explosives by reporting the chemical analysis of what was present in a closed container, even a steel clad one. The Pennsylvania Rapid Transit System in Philadelphia put on a demonstration. Neutrons that identified the chemical make-up of explosives inside the container and then relayed the information back to the scanner for interpretation by the system’s software which provided a read out on its screen identifying the explosives scanned a container. No visual images, no interpretations by screeners, no mistakes. The equipment was only able to examine small areas at a time and was too slow for mass use at airports. But the science provides the kind of security equipment that can eliminate all of the unacceptable and unreliable characteristics of scanners that simply peak at undressed passengers.

After 9/11 American and European nations rushed through wholesale purchase of CTX equipment which relies on MRI technology to alert screeners to weapons and what they believe are explosives. We have since learned that thing aren’t always what they appear to be on a screen and that things like peanut butter and semtex explosives have the same density when measured in a CTX machine resulting In false positives at unacceptable levels. We have recovered lots of peanut butter and chocolate from passenger bags, but somehow explosives placed into the system by government Red Team investigators still get through unnoticed. In government’s zeal to show that for every terrorist challenge to our aviation security systems we have an answer, a history of failed equipment, expensive personnel experiments and frustrated passengers no safer than they were eight years ago is all we have to show. In response to the most recent attack on Christmas Day, within 24 hours ill conceived proposals have come from our government leaders, most of which have already been withdrawn. But it appears that in answer to worldwide pressure to react, our allies and we appear to be ready to roll out the wrong technologies once again to face the problem of identifying explosives rather than building upon new science with more promising results.

The public intuitively is opposed to the mandatory use of scanners that reveal the uncovered contours of traveler’s bodies for examination by government screeners. For that reason alone they have gone unused until now. Certain actions by government remain unacceptable to our dignity and decency and require a different approach to problem solving, even problems of the magnitude of acts of terrorists against millions of travelers worldwide. A nation that outlaws torture of terrorists on decency grounds now finds itself imposing a different and perhaps for many an even more indecent requirement on those who would be victims of those same terrorist.

In this instance, there is even a more compelling argument to be made against whole body scanners; they simply cannot be relied upon to identify explosive materials carried on the person. It is, or should be, a source of embarrassment for technologically advanced nations such as ours to say that all we can offer air travelers by way of protection against explosives in airliners cabins is to have each, regardless of age, gender or personal convictions choose between exposing their bodies or taking a bus. 

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