U.S. Airport Security Checkpoints Poised for Evolutionary Leap

The TSA is putting programs in place that can differentiate explosive materials from cheese.

On July 5, Transportation Security Administration airport screeners found a bag with two ice packs inside. The ice packs had clay inside them, rather than blue gel, were covered in tape and matched a description of materials on a TSA bulletin warning of dry runs for terrorist attacks.

According to news reports, the 66-year-old grandmother from Long Island whom the TSA detained was carrying a chunk of cheese wedged between archaic, pre-blue-gel ice pack technology, made out of clay.

They let Sara Weiss go home after 3 hours of questioning.

Stories like this are making a laughingstock out of the nations airport screening technologies, procedures and staff. In this country full of smart people, isnt anybody working on technology that can detect and differentiate explosive materials or weapon-like objects from cheese?

As a matter of fact, the airport security checkpoints of the future are going to make our current screening technologies seem as laughable as … well, as they are, cheese fracases and all.

GE Security, for one, in late December 2005 unveiled what it called its "Checkpoint of the Future" lab in San Franciscos International Terminal Concourse A. The checkpoint incorporated an array of futuristic scanning technologies: automated carry-on scanning, automatic biological pathogen detection, millimeter-wave full-body scanning, explosives trace detection on passengers, and a so-called "quadrupole resonance carpet" to detect threats in shoes.


To view and eWEEK slide show about the future of airport security, click here.

In January 2007 the lab was moved out of SFO and into GEs Magnetic Center of Excellence in San Diego, where three of its scanning technologies have since wound up in a product called the SRT (Secure Registered Traveler) Kiosk.

The SRT is now in use at Orlando International, three terminals at JFK, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, San Jose, Albany, N.Y. and Little Rock, Ark., and is about to go live at Newark, LaGuardia and a few other airports that are lined up to join the Clear Registered Traveler program. "Clear" is a traveler pre-registration program that entails matching iris and fingerprint scan data stored on a card with a scan of those biometric details at the airport.

The SRT looks like an ATM with short walls. A traveler walks onto a few feet of quadrupole resonance carpet that checks his or her shoes for traces of explosives. Using smart card technology, iris image capture and a finger reader, the kiosk identifies travelers and checks their stats against the biometric information stored on a special ID card, while also checking for traces of explosives on the fingers.

The technology represents an evolutionary leap in terms of explosives detection. Were this technology in place at the time, it could have detected the plastic explosives hidden in the shoes of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber who attempted to detonate a plane in-flight in December 2001.

On a less sensational level, the technology will also mean passengers get to keep their clothes on during screening—no need to remove shoes or coats. When and if other Checkpoint of the Future technologies make it into products, it could also mean we wont have to remove cell phones or laptops from our bags, for example.


Click here to read about how tight airline budgets are making travel more arduous.

GE borrowed from technologies developed by a few different companies to create the Checkpoint of the Future. L-3 Communications, for example, loaned its millimeter wave whole-body imaging technology.

Millimeter wave is different from backscatter X-ray—an imaging technology that has raised eyebrows and privacy fears— though both do whole-body scans.

Backscatter is another new type of imaging technology that many people find objectionably intrusive. Backscatter detects the radiation that a target bounces back. The technology, now in use at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, presents an image of items outside of your body.

Backscatter X-rays produce images of photo quality that are disturbingly frank—EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center), which has called the images a "virtual striptease," has an image on its site of Susan Hallowell, director of the TSAs research lab, that gives an idea of how much detail is rendered. Even that explicit image was distorted so as to blur the private parts, and according to the TSA, a trial backscatter system in Phoenix has replaced those photo images with cartoonish outlines.

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