Airport Security: Privacy vs. Safety

Emily Holbrook


March 1, 2010

Since September 11, airline security throughout the United States has increased dramatically. But despite improved measures in everything from border patrol to airport screening, there have still been multiple attempted terrorist attacks aboard both domestic and international flights.

In December 2001, Richard Reid, also known as the shoe bomber, was wrestled to the ground by passengers and crew as he attempted to ignite an explosive device hidden in his shoe while aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. In 2007, passengers once again subdued a hijacker-this time a belligerent, gun-wielding man aboard a plane over the Canary Islands. In 2008, a Somali woman attempted to hijack an Air New Zealand flight and have it re-routed to Australia. Then, in November 2009, a group of armed men failed to hijack a flight over Somalia, thanks to a group of quick-thinking passengers.

The most recent in-air threat happened December 25 when Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear while aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

So how was this individual able to come so close to succeeding with his allegedly al Qaeda-linked terrorist attack when airport security was so greatly tightened after September 11, 2001? Many feel that question is easily answered. The CIA, Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration simply failed.

According to White House officials, various strands of intelligence were available that, if put together properly, would have made sure that the bombing suspect was put on a "no-fly" list preventing him from boarding. "We had in our possession information that likely could have prevented or disrupted the incident on the 25th of December from happening," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

After the Christmas scare, the Obama administration created new rules specifying that citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, must receive a pat down and extra security check of their carry-on baggage before boarding any plane headed toward the United States. The new rules have been heavily criticized by rights advocates and these countries, most of which have large Muslim populations. But the administration may have felt it had few options left.

One other option is the implementation of full-body scanners in all airports. In fact, officials in Amsterdam announced soon after the December 25 incident that they would begin using scanners on all passengers bound for the United States. And Australia recently announced it would spend $200 million over four years to boost security at all Australian airports. Additionally, Obama has directed the Department of Homeland Security to speed the installation of $1 billion in advanced technology equipment for the screening of passengers. He has requested body scanners at U.S. airports and asked that assistance be given to international airports, enabling them to upgrade their existing equipment in order to protect passengers on flights headed to the United States.

In late January, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano traveled to Spain and Switzerland to meet with counterparts, foreign ministers and airline executives in a push for an international set of airline security rules and regulations set by the Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations. Napolitano also announced that body-scanning machines would now be seen at airports in London, Paris and Frankfurt, Germany.

In the United States, these scanners have been a rare sight in airports, and not just due to a lack of resources. The House of Representatives voted to ban the use of them in June. "You don't need to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked in order to secure that airplane," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).

To others, however, the global aviation security network, not to mention the United States' methods for tracking terrorists, is dangerously flawed. Former FBI investigator William Daly recently remarked that airline security resembles "swiss cheese," in that there are so many holes for terrorists to infiltrate airliners and airports. CIA Director Leon Panetta agrees. He testified before Congress in early February, stating that an attack by al Qaeda can be expected in the United States "within the next three to six months."

With this is mind, passengers may have to continue to act as defenders of their own safety. Some believe the government should issue in-flight information about what to do in case of an unruly passenger or potential hijacker. Airline passengers have been successful in thwarting attempted hijackings since September 11, but some support from the government and the airlines would help, instead of leaving it all to technology. A hijacker will eventually make it onto another plane, and passengers should be taught exactly how to handle such a situation.

"We are not helpless," wrote Amanda Ripley, an author who studies natural and man-made disasters. "And since regular people will always be first on the scene of terrorist attacks, we should perhaps prioritize the public's antiterrorism capability-above and beyond the fancy technology that will never be foolproof."



The first industrial metal detectors were developed in the 1960s and are currently the most common form of screening machines at airports worldwide. The device uses current produced by an oscillator that creates a magnetic field in which metal objects can be detected. And though it can easily detect knives, guns and grenades, it is not successful at revealing nonmetal weapons or explosives. This is the only type of scanner Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had to go through at the Amsterdam airport before boarding a flight to Detroit with explosives in his underwear.


This is a whole body-imaging device that is currently in use in several airports worldwide. The millimeter wave scanner uses extremely high frequency radio bands, making clothing and other organic materials translucent. This, like the backscatter x-ray scanners, has attracted criticism from privacy advocates who claim the technology violates personal privacy, while others are concerned about the health effects. Since this technology uses radio waves, however, millimeter wave scanners have no proven adverse health effects, though there are sure to see more studies on this topic.


The most effective and most widely criticized by privacy advocates, the backscatter X-ray scanner is one of the most advanced of all imaging technologies. Unlike traditional x-rays, backscatter x-rays detect the radiation that reflects back from an object, forming a clear image on the screener's computer. Backscatter technologies are used not only for scanning humans, but for searching cargo containers and trucks as well. Like millimeter wave technology, backscatter x-rays can penetrate organic material, allowing screeners to see any hidden objects on a person's body. Though health concerns have been raised in connection with the use of these x-ray scanners, the technology uses such extremely low levels of x-rays that no adverse health effects have been proven. As with millimeter wave scanners, more studies on the potential health risks of backscatter x-ray screening are likely to surface soon.
Emily Holbrook is the founder of Red Label Writing, LLC, a writing, editing and content strategy firm catering to insurance and risk management businesses and publications, and a former editor of Risk Management.