What part should travelers play in airport security?

I can safely say that I have one of the most satisfying occupations in the world. Helping to protect the intangible assets that drive the world’s economies is certainly something that most individuals (read: men) with a superhero complex should aspire to, once they figure out that forcing radioactive spider bite situations to occur is a recipe for pain and disappointment.

Despite the rewards of the occupation, the cost of entry (competence, experience, qualification) and on-going investments (time, training, equipment) are high. None of these is as high as the relentless effort to stay on top of current events and to separate valuable information from FUD

Over the past couple of weeks, the already prominent airline security debate has reached unprecedented levels of irrationality following the “Christmas Terror Attack” and the introduction of the controversial ‘naked’ scanners. The “Security Theater” continues to this day and from where I sit, absolutely anyone with an outlet is given a voice, whether they have any understanding of security, privacy, civil liberties or well… not. 

As most of my peers in the industry do, I tend to ignore the drone, the ‘noise’ and the ‘FOX-news’-like rhetoric when it comes to such issues. Certain things are intuitively clear to people and the last thing anyone needs is more noise. Unfortunately, when educated people choose to force their opinion on us and on a helpless public, I reserve the right to pipe up and say something.

Take for instance last week’s Globe and Mail piece titled “That naked image at the airport actually enhances your privacy”. The alarming inaccuracy of this title notwithstanding (and easily attributed to an awkward attempt at controversy, it is the unsubstantiated points haphazardly thrown in by author Mark Salter, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies (and the editor of Politics at the Airport) that caught my eye. Mr. Salter, makes a number of points, the first of which urgently needs to be addressed here: 

Security analysts have sarcastically suggested that the only way to ensure aviation security is to fly naked”: Not quite. Any security professional worth his salt will specify that the ‘bare’ essentials of such a scenario involve

  1. A hospital gown (so as to not catch a cold during the flight) and a fully intrusive medical exam to determine whether ALL fluids brought on board are devoid of risk.
  2. All of the subject’s luggage and personal effects getting to their destination by some other means, either a different flight, a train, etc.
  3. The subject being securely handcuffed to the seat, preferably with their movement severely restricted so as to not, say, mix two benign liquids stored in two fake teeth to produce an explosive concoction. Or something.

 Alternatively, full anesthesia is also an option, albeit with the added costs passed on to the travelers. 

All kidding aside, Mr. Salter makes another 4 points worth dispelling: 

1.“The image screening officer (ISO) is totally separated from the screening line”: From a security perspective, this is ineffective. From a privacy perspective, whether the individual’s name and birthday appear on the screen when the ISO is looking is not the point. The clear issue is that the subject – let’s face it, the victim – knows that their whole, naked body is being stared at by another individual. The price of a flight should not include such a crude confiscation of dignity.

2.“The images are not recognizable as particular individuals. So, even if I was looking for someone going through a screening point, I couldn’t identify which of the hundreds of images was that individual”: To illustrate the naiveté of this statement I would simply refer my reader to the images in the above link, as well as to any others that can be seen by simply looking through Google Images. Although faces are a good means of verifiable identification, individuals can even more readily be recognized by the overall look of their body (which is clearly more than just their outline) than they are by their facial characteristics.

3.The image on the screen cannot be saved, printed or transmitted”. Really. I would be willing to bet my house that it can, and every single one of my readers (even those rare, elusive ones who modestly do not consider themselves authorities in the field of airline security) could do it without any effort whatsoever. 

4. “the detailed image is not transmitted to the screening officer at the checkpoint. A stick figure is displayed to the officer that indicates the area of the alarm. It is then his/her responsibility to find the item through the normal pat-down procedure”. Ahh, yes, the normal pat-down procedure which is, at the end of the day, the most reliable way of feeling “plastic guns, ceramic knives, explosive underpants” and the root of all evil: liquids!


I’m relieved by the sharply negative response to Mr. Salter’s article that the audience (at least those who bothered to read and submit feedback) is thankfully composed of rational individuals. However, it is this kind of ‘seat of the pants’ thinking that has allowed ostensibly qualified people to progressively and inexorably chip away at the public’s resistance to the misappropriation of civil liberties.

 Does anyone on the planet actually think that we’re one bit more secure now than we were 3 weeks ago, when a human error was made, allowing a ‘watch listed’ individual to get on a plane and set his pants on fire? We clearly aren’t. We’re going through the motions because we’ve been assigned parts. Those parts will change as would-be terrorists simply place timed explosives in checked luggage, or change the stitching on their jackets to include any of gazillions of flammable materials. Their options are unlimited, but the public has already lost its dignity. 

And now it’s the turn of privacy. Airlines have plainly stated that they will be forced to breach Canada’s privacy laws to comply with American air security rules. An assessment conducted last year plainly states “There are also no guarantees how the U.S. will use the information it obtains from carriers overflying its territory” but that hasn’t stopped the demands for name, gender and birthdates on some 5 million Canadians. 

Ah, but we’ve been offered a way out of this conundrum: the US Secure Flight program alternatively demands that Canada create an equivalent program and if that’s done, they’ll stop asking. For now. 

To conclude, we all instinctively know there are better ways to do things:

  1. Tighten the administrative security lapses that allowed the ‘terrorist’ situations to occur in the past say, decade. Get better at profiling without stereotyping.
  2. Use faster body scanners that replace individuals with caricatures, identifying only the items and automagically obscuring every anatomical detail. Heck, with today’s technology every scanned individual can be replaced with a cartoon character. That might even make the process more fun. But I digress. We need to instill fear and intimidate the masses.
  3. Bring education back to the unkempt masses of airport security personnel who are quite often hired for their impressive ability to show a pulse, or to fog up a mirror. These people are often offensive and unpleasant in demeanor. I understand they’re “only doing their job” and let’s not forget “trying to save [my] life”, but more often than not, it’s not what they do, but how they do it that makes people want to cooperate, or not.  

Indeed these ‘ambassadors’ of US policy are not only on this continent, but in every airport with flights bound for the US (or the UK). They, more than any other party in this huge ‘security theater’ create first and lasting impressions about their country. 

In the excellent article “Flying High”, Christopher Hitchens makes it clear that the line between safety and buffoonery has long been blurred and things got to this point in a series of almost imperceptible mini-attacks on our tolerance as opposed to one massive onslaught. Most of all though, I’m personally satisfied that an educated man and author can demonstrate clear thinking and common sense despite a definite lack of security and privacy qualifications.

Finally, it’s really the entire airport security experience that often sets the stage for the entire trip, and unquestionably determines whether innocent travelers are reluctant participants or willing to play the parts they’ve been assigned in the name of the greater good. 

About the author:
Claudiu Popa, CISSP, PMP, CISA, CIPP, CRMP is an information security consultant and CEO of Informatica Corporation ( Claudiu helps enterprises to understand and mitigate security risks, anticipate and respond to threats, and implement proper security governance. He is the author of the Canadian Privacy and Data Security Toolkit for SME, published by the CICA. Write to [email protected] simply contribute your comments to this blog. Follow him on or connect with him on
Claudiu Popa
Claudiu Popa
Claudiu Popa is a security and privacy advisor to Canadian enterprises, associations and agencies. He is an author, speaker and lecturer. Connect with him on Twitter @datarisk, Facebook, G+ or LinkedIn.

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