Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Helping Airport Security: Fly Naked.

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By now, you all are aware that yet another privileged young extremist man, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded an airplane bound for the United States with the intention of blowing the plane up and in doing so, ending hundreds of innocent civilian lives. If you know that, then you also know that several passengers and the authorities caught Abdulmutallab as he tried to detonate explosives shortly before the Northwest Airlines flight was scheduled to land in Detroit — explosives smuggled in his underpants. What was President Obama’s reaction? Astonishingly, instead of reacting in a thoughtful way, he “did a George W. Bush” by reacting in the same mindless, kneejerk way that Bush was famous for: attacking the civil rights of innocent people by ordering that all air travelers in America undergo yet more invasive and degrading security checks.


Nevermind that such increased security screening would not have stopped Abdulmutallab since he was flying into the USA and had already passed through at least two security checks already.

Instead of asking how Abdulmutallab managed to board this flight, President Obama instead accepts that he deserved to board the plane — he paid for his ticket, didn’t he? Nevermind the fact that Abdulmutallab originally boarded his flight in Lagos, Nigeria — an airport that is recognized internationally as having generally subpar security. Nevermind that Abdulmutallab paid more than $2000 in cash for his ticket — a considerable sum of cash in any country. Nevermind that he did not carry or check any baggage for this long international flight. Nevermind that he was already on an international watchlist after being barred from entering the UK for claiming he was studying at a bogus college there. Nevermind that embassy officials were warned several weeks ago by Abdulmutallab’s own father regarding his growing concerns over his son’s increasingly extremist ideas.

All of this information was already known by airport security personnel. Any one of these behaviors is a “red flag” to airline security indicating an increased potential for terrorist behavior. Taken together, all of these “red flags” are sufficient to be added to an international “no fly” list. Yet all of these “red flags” were ignored at the Nigeria airport and at the Amsterdam airport, where Abdulmutallab boarded his connecting flight to Detroit.

Instead of using the information that they already have in their possession, President Obama openly advocates attacking every airline passenger’s civil rights through the use of full-body scans, which are expensive, time-consuming, ineffective and are a gross invasion of personal privacy.

One such full-body scan technology are “backscatter” machines, which cost more than $200,000 per unit. These machines reveal anything that a person is concealing on their body — from lost tailor’s pins in their suit jacket linings and nipple and belly button rings to sanitary napkins in women’s panties. These items appear on the scan as a “as kind of a gray mass,” according to Douglas Laird, former security director for Northwest airlines. When these “grey masses” show up on a scan, do I need to tell you what the inevitable reaction will be?

But full-body scans are yet another kneejerk reaction. Need I point out that few existing scanners can detect weapons carried inside a person’s body? Shall we require a complete body cavity search for every passenger prior to boarding their flights?

Need I point out that few existing scanners can detect chemical weapons? The equipment that we currently have can only detect one chemical at a time and must be recalibrated for each substance. How many weeks prior to our scheduled flights must we show up at the airport?

Worse, biological weapons are undetectable using current scanning technology — remember anthrax?

Oh, and need I mention that every pervert and misogynist will immediately leave the Catholic priesthood to receive training as a body scan screener at their local airport?

Where will this renewed demand for increased “security” bring us? Will all airline passengers be required to strip down completely and fly naked? This scenario isn’t as tongue-in-cheek as you might think. Don’t forget we are required to remove our shoes before passing through security due to infamous “shoe bomber” Richard Reid’s attempt to smuggle explosives aboard a flight in his shoes in December 2001. We aren’t allowed to bring liquids on board flights because of the 2006 plot to blow up jetliners using explosive liquids, discovered in the UK. Don’t forget that new mothers were forced to drink their own breast milk meant for their babies due to this particular security requirement.

Thanks to Abdulmutallab, I expect that the next time I fly, I will be required to take my panties off and send those through whatever security inspections are required, which will probably include a sniff test administered by a specially-trained pervert with a keen nose.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex Besogonov
    December 28, 2009

    “All of this information was already known by airport security personnel. Any one of these behaviors is a “red flag” to airline security indicating an increased potential for terrorist behavior. Taken together, all of these “red flags” are sufficient to be added to an international “no fly” list.”

    No, they are NOT sufficient for ‘no fly’ list. We shouldn’t have no-fly lists AT ALL, exactly because they don’t work.

    If you try to be very restrictive, such people will slip through cracks. If you try to be very aggressive, then watch list will be littered with false positives.

    There’s no way they can work.

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    December 28, 2009

    Don’t forget that new mothers were forced to drink their own breast milk meant for their babies due to this security requirement.

    Breast milk is that dangerous?! Why don’t they set up a breast milk removal station, where the boobs are emptied? The officials must to be highly trained to make sure they get all milk. When necessary they shall be authorized to squeeze hard, and use their own lips.

  3. #3 freedom
    December 28, 2009

    They’ve won. The terrorists have won. They wanted us in the West to suffer, to destroy our freedom, our way of life, and they have done just that.

    With each new stupid rule brought in by our “officials” there’s another nail in the coffin for our freedom.

    Don’t our politicians see that?

  4. #4 lewis
    December 28, 2009

    Did Obama actually proposed naked travel or was your title constructed to rouse indignance?

  5. #5 Humza Ahmed
    December 28, 2009

    I thing such incidents take place to the least attention of the security, and no need of more security.

  6. #6 Andy
    December 28, 2009

    Oh, and need I mention that every pervert and misogynist will immediately leave the Catholic priesthood to receive training as a body scan screener at their local airport?

    And yet you’ve managed to be far more insulting in one sentence than any ‘body screen’ could be. I certainly hope you were being hyperbolic with…

    Well. Nearly everything you just said, because you’re sounding just as ridiculous as you’re claiming Obama’s proposals are.

  7. #7 Stephen Downes
    December 28, 2009

    First, ‘never mind’ is two words, not one. ‘Nevermind’ is the name of a famous Nirvana album. But not a word.

    Second, most of what you accuse Obama of doing in this post was either (a) not done, or (b) not done by Obama.

  8. #8 MDTaz
    December 28, 2009

    It’s maddening. It’s a state dept/embassy oversight (didn’t the guy’s father contact them with concerns about his son’s extremism?), an airline security issue (2,000 cash for a ticket without luggage?) and an airport security issue – in Lagos and Amsterdam. But it’s your every day American – the flying public – that has to pay. With all due respect, I think we’re solving the wrong problem.

  9. #9 Keith
    December 28, 2009

    Whether Obama, or anyone else, actually proposed we should travel in the nude, they should have done! We should do everything in the nude. And if we did we’d all be a lot better adjusted, better in tune with our bodies, less freaked at talking to medics, and more knowledgeable about how things work. That has to be good as it would reduce incidence of undiagnosed serious illness, reduce hang-ups and also reduce teenage/unwanted pregnancies.

  10. #10 Bob's Big Brother
    December 28, 2009

    One thing missing one thing off the list of things we’d be if we did everything in the nude – colder!

  11. #11 Buenaventura860
    December 28, 2009

    Curiously, this biased political rant is posted on a science blog. Not much scientific method apparent in the author’s assumption of facts, nor are the conclusions based on logical analysis.

  12. #12 Petros
    December 28, 2009

    Your profiling suggestions are off base. Nigerians routinely keep cash and buy things with cash. You would, too, if your country’s currency devaluated like a West African currency. Moreover, $2000 is around the going rate for a Nigeria-US ticket. It’s a large sum of cash in Nigeria, but among the elites of Nigeria with London houses it is no big deal to spend that kind of money on flying. If you want to bar people with this kind of profile you are going to bar most of the (wealthy) West Africans who like to fly. Good luck with that. Flying without luggage is not some kind of crime, either.

    The embassy gets a lot of reports about a lot of things. Other than creating a file and putting someone on a watch list, there is not much else they can do. Do you expect the US embassy to arrest Nigerians in Nigeria on the mere suspicion that they MAY have extremist views? Do you have any idea how much of Africa that includes!?!?

    Why not let him on the plane? It’s not good enough just that he is a black, or a Muslim, or a Nigerian, or that he did not check a bag. Fundamentally, the reason not to let him on is because he has explosives sewn into his underwear. But how can we detect that without actually searching anybody?

    The inviolability of your stupid panties to x-rays hardly trumps the rights of all Africans to fly, and your suggestion hardly addresses the problem of people bringing explosives onto planes.

  13. #13 Andy
    December 28, 2009

    Mam, why dont you stop flying if you are so worried of your privacy and perverts ? Some people like me rather be alive than dead and private.

  14. #14 Firebyrd
    December 29, 2009

    Will wonders never cease. Not only do I, as a libertarian no less, agree with everything you say (which is somewhat unusual), but the majority of the comments think you are being unreasonable? So very strange…

    The problem doesn’t need more security measures. It’s just that existing, reasonable (and that don’t involve stupid things like absurd liquid restrictions) security measures need to actually be followed! They’re often not, even here in the US. A friend who collects various sorts of weaponry flew this summer and at her destination realized she had both one of her knives and a gun clip, and she’d gone through two security stations. It’s nuts the kind of very basic stuff that gets through security while completely innocent people get harassed.

  15. #15 "GrrlScientist"
    December 29, 2009

    freedom: indeed. sad, but very true.

    Stephen Downes: i am a seattle native, and was a fan of nirvana before the world knew of their existence, so i am entitled to take the name of their most famous album in vain. furthermore, ‘nevermind’ appears in my online dictionary, so using that criterion, it IS a word.

    Bob’s Big Brother: my freezing appendages agree with your observation.

    MDTaz: i agree. by increasing airline security precautions, the authorities are reducing average americans’ desire to travel, especially abroad. this means that americans will develop ever more insular ideas and less tolerant views of other people and nations. not only is this damaging to american intellectual and cultural lives, but it is very unsafe for the rest of the world.

    andy: you make a false (and laughable) dichotomy by stating that we need to choose between either having strangers sniffing our underwear or surviving a flight to visit to aunt martha.

    firebyrd: i am not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but i am practical and i do think that part of being an american involves protecting people’s civil rights. it is silly to throw more money and technology at this problem and to further destroy our civil rights before we’ve fully invested our money and technology into using existing — and less invasive — methods of identifying potential terrorists.

  16. #16 Walt
    December 30, 2009

    Be aware–No terrorist group has started to have the bomber have surgery and inplant the bomb inside their body. you might not even see the scars. The terrorist are winning by us good people getting restricted opon. We need to restrict flights from countries that allow people to buypass securites checkpoints like this one did.

  17. #17 Lars Bakker
    December 30, 2009

    Understanding that the within three weeks to be installed full body scan at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport cannot detect weapons inside the body, and accepting that the Al Qaeda terrorists have the same habit as non-terrorist people, in a sense that they learn from past experiences and that they adapt to new technological innovations as the full body scan, effectively putting the chemicals inside their bodies (they are going to die anyway), it is unbelievable that the Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs, a social democrat notably, has taken this decision. The above mentioned simple logic is easily and convincingly passed over to the public on tv within one minute. I know the Dutch social democrats are hurt by continuous political attacks by the small right, and that I can imagine the pressure from political America being high in this case, but I feel that the public would have understood the logic. It seems like a weak decision of Minister Ter Horst.

  18. #18 No, I'm NOT a Rasta, and no, I'm NOT Jamaican!
    January 1, 2010

    hmmm, I have 36″ long locks and get targeted for secondary screening routinely even though I carry DC government ID, and a background check would reflect time spent in counter-terrorism with the British military- when I ask, TSA quite often admits I was profiled because of my locks even though they are supposed to be concentrating on micro-expression recognition and those apparently innocent general questions like “how was your trip” etc. (the answers for which don’t matter because they are trying to elicit micro-expressions to interpret) but before any questions or other screening, my locks draw then to the same assumptions…

    in fact I was not stopped three days ago traveling from Florence to Tampa, but the only passenger who was, had locks… but then this morning I did get stopped in Tampa (on the return half of a known domestic trip) and agreed to the MMW whole body scan procedure but I felt that that whole body imaging was not a violation of my privacy nor invasive (images cannot be printed, stored, or transmitted, and are then permanently deleted- in fact, the viewer can’t even see the actual person who is being screened [faces get blurred] to correlate image with person), it’s simply security screening at a time when so many items like knives, catridges, etc. are often mistakenly left in our luggage and get missed…

    But the real issue was not the scan but the profiling- if everyone went through that sort of screening, claims and perceptions of discrimination would have no ammunition and TSA and the US government could rest easy on that score, however they would also be continuing to tackle this whole thing the wrong way by trying to guess “target and tactic” instead of proactively gathering (or as in this case, acting upon) intelligence

  19. #19 Christmas is my day off
    January 11, 2010

    Let us not forget that TSA does not hire the cream of the crop to begin with. I flew on Christmas day, and all the TSA agents were goofing off, not really paying attention, and having an involved discussion of what men’s cologne’s were essential to have, including the person checking the bags on the xray screen. The technological “fix” is fairly useless if the operators of that fix are goofing off as if it were the last day before winter break in elementary school…

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