Overpowering security

17:00, Jul 12 2014

In the pantheon of great misnomers, there are a few that always make me chuckle.

Military intelligence is a good one. Organic vegetables is another, given I've seldom seen vegetables comprise anything besides organic matter. Or in the case of airport security, the express lane, which is usually anything but.

And that security lane is soon going to get even slower, thanks to the latest idea out of America's Department of Homeland Security, a gift from the Bush Administration following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon back in 2001.

Attacks, you'll remember, that were carried out with the aid of nothing more technologically advanced than box cutters.

It has become the world's largest anti-terrorism organisation, and besides coining another awful misnomer, Unlawful Combatant (basically someone with no human rights) it is mostly responsible for the creation of several new methods of torture - water-boarding (for the unlawful combatants) and airport security (for the rest of us).

In the wake of the horror of 9/11 no-one objected to increased vigilance around air travel, even when it meant stripping half-naked (or in the case of modern 3-D X-ray, completely naked).


We dutifully removed our shoes and our belts, took our laptops from our bags, and put up with our nail scissors and perfume bottles being confiscated.

We formed orderly queues when security screening was introduced on domestic flights in New Zealand; even though, for reasons I could never quite grasp, it applied only to aircraft with more than 90 seats.

Liquids and gels were the fashionable terrorism accessory for a period, and over-zealous security staff seemed to take perverse pleasure in binning hundreds of dollars' worth of branded, sealed cosmetics if they were so much as a millilitre over the allowed amount.

Even plain water was deemed a security risk. I guess it would be possible to squirt a bottle in the face of a cabin crew member and leg it for the cockpit.

The latest incarnation of security paranoia, however, has the potential to create a backlash hitherto unseen since 9/11: Homeland Security wants us to part with our cellphones if we can't power them up.

In a neat twist on the existing rule about not powering up a phone anywhere near an aircraft, Homeland Security says passengers on flights originating and ending between the US and Europe must be able to prove that their smartphone is not an explosive device.

In order to achieve this, all passengers are going to have to make sure their devices are powered up enough for security staff to check their authenticity. Anyone who has spent too long playing Flappy Bird on their iPhone in the terminal faces a mad dash to find a charger or leaving their phone behind.

It's been reported that terrorists in Yemen and Syria with ties to al Qaeda have figured out how to turn cellphones into undetectable bombs and are working together on a plot to attack a plane bound for the United States or Europe. Bombs would be hidden on foreign fighters carrying Western passports.

I'm not an explosives expert, but it would seem to me that if al Qaeda has managed to make bombs which are "undetectable" by screening techniques, then finding a way to make them appear powered on wouldn't be too much of an additional problem - especially now that Homeland Security has tipped them off.

As one security expert said last week, would-be terrorists will find ways of making it look as if the device is working. Plus, if you get good intelligence, you don't normally tell the other side you have it.

The immense upheaval and delays this new rule may cause would, of course, be worth it if it had a chance of preventing a terrorist attack. But I'm sceptical that it will do anything of the sort.

Although the US and other security agencies don't like talking about it publicly, for fear of being seen as discriminatory, profiling offers the best chance of catching would-be terrorists.

The Israelis perfected this long before 9/11. Its carrier, El Al, conducts lengthy personal interviews with its passengers. It sends all luggage through a decompression chamber to simulate explosive triggers. It maintains security black and no-fly lists and profiles all passengers.

It isn't worried about water bottles or whether or not your iPhone will power up. These things are window-dressing at airport security; designed to make us feel better about getting on a plane.

And that's the irony of Bush's War on Terror - it's become a war with ourselves. As we punch at shadows and jump at every latest snippet of intel, we gradually lose the freedoms, mobility and privileges the terrorists wished to take away in the first place.

I don't begrudge America its paranoia. It has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists. But I do hope smarter minds than those who dreamed up a ban on powered-off cellphones are working behind the scenes.

Homeland Security cites the lack of successful terrorist attacks on Western airliners since 9/11 as proof it is effective. I'd love to believe that were true.

But I fear the reality is a mixture of dumb luck, good detective work by the FBI and its British counterpart, and al Qaeda being occupied elsewhere.

Meanwhile, public anxieties will continue to be soothed by a litany of meaningless rules and the confiscation of that duty free gin you bought on the wrong side of the terminal.

Sunday Star Times