Getting better at mass transit security

Is there anything more aggravating than meandering slowly through a security line at an airport?  We’ve all been there and we all hate it.  People have missed flights because they were delayed at checkpoints and we have all suffered insults to our ‘dignity’ because of the need to comply with security demands (Who left liquids in their bag?  No, that doesn’t go there!  Take your shoes off!  And your belt!).  Fun this is not.

Now imagine the same routine getting on a bus or a subway.  Hard to fathom this, right?  I mean air travel is a luxury and infrequent experience for most us while mass transit is a daily must.  We  may be more open to putting up with the former but certainly not the latter.  But is there a difference?

To a terrorist, no.  True, we are all too familiar with terrorist attacks on aircraft – Air India, 9/11, the underwear bomber, etc. – but there have also been attacks on mass transit.  The two best known incindents are probably the 7/7 terrorist attacks in 2005 on the London Tube/bus system and the March 2004 attacks on the Madrid commuter system: the former claimed 52 lives while the latter killed 192.  There have also been many, many attacks on buses in Israel by Palestinian Islamist extremists.  Other attacks have happened in New York and Germany.

We also know that terrorists are keen to replicate these successes where they can. Whether it is on a plane or on a bus/train, an attack on these facilities ensures high casualty counts and maximum media exposure, hence a win-win for the terrorists.  In response, governments and service providers are made to constantly update their security measures to thwart terrorist intent.  This is why the regimes change. In truth they are often reactive: the prohibition of liquids on planes only came into wide force after the 2006 transatlantic terrorist plot that originated in the UK.

There may be some light at the end of the interminable security line at airports, thank God.  The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and American Airlines have recently tested a new machine that will obviate the need to empty our carry-on bags at scanning stations.  Using ‘computed tomography’ (or CT which I normally see as ‘counter terrorism’) technology, security agents can see a detailed 3-D picture of those bags: to date the images are only 2-D.  This allows the agents to get a much better sense of what is inside and removes the requirement to put everything outside the bag.  Apparently it has been successfully tested at several high-traffic airports and works well, so fingers crossed we’ll see it in more places.

When it comes to other forms of mass transit, the Los Angeles transit body has become the first to deploy a network of body scanners to screen passengers at a distance.  The scanners are similar to those used already at airports and work unobtrusively: i.e. people have no idea they are being scanned.  The idea is that bad guys do not limit their plans to airports and airplanes.  People with ‘suspicious’ outlines can be diverted to the side for a more detailed check.

I can hear the cries of protest already. The scans are too invasive – they show my naked body.  What is done with the data collected?  Why can’t they ask for my permission first?  Why not just scan obvious terrorists, you know brown bearded people?

The fact remains that security is a given and it is not going away.  We can always improve how we do it with respect to efficiency and respect for privacy but we cannot not perform security sweeps.  Wishing for that is like wishing for Santa Claus.  Get used to it and suck it up.  Or don’t travel: the choice is yours.

There will always be an arms race between our protectors and the bad guys.  The latter are continually coming up with novel ways to succeed and the former are constantly trying to interdict those plans.  Frankly I am surprised it has taken this long to shift our attention to mass transit as this form of transportation has always been a kind of low hanging fruit for terrorists and it amazes me that we have not seen more attacks on this sector (careful what I wish for, I know).

In the end kudos to those who think of better ways to keep us safe. They are not perfect but they perform a necessary task and they know what they have to do.  Yes, we have to hold them accountable but at the same time we should recognise when they get things right.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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