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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fly naked Should airport x-ray see your thing?

Underwear bomb fails
to take down jet bound for Detroit

A terrorist has placed your privacy at risk when a bomb hidden in his underwear failed to explode.

Abdul Mudallad hid a two part incendiary device, part liquid part powder, in his underwear and on his leg. Once the two substances were mixed together and an electric charge from a cell phone battery put to it, the contraption was supposed to blow up. It didn’t, but his failed effort may have a drastic effect on your privacy rights from now on.

The technology is ancient. Miners used to mix water with powdered carbide, put a flame to it, and abra cadabra, they had a light to guide their way through dark mine shafts.

There is an x-ray machine that would have allowed screeners to spot the device. Instead of simply detecting metal, it allows the screener to take a peek at things hidden under your pants or dress. Unfortunately, it also allows screeners to take a peek at everything else that clothes usually hide. That includes your penis, your vagina and your breasts.

If screeners have enough probable cause they can take a peek at all of your body parts anyway. They take you to a private room and force you to take off all of your clothes. Under certain circumstances they can put on the latex gloves. Since most people object to strip and body cavity searches, and since a strip search takes a lot of man power, and woman power, not many airline passengers suffer the indignity of invasive searches.

The Backscatter body scanner will do a nearly instant strip search on every person who walks through it. If security personal have their way, flying naked, so to speak, will be the only way they will let you on the jet. The machine can be toned down so the screener sees “fewer details” and outlines. They will still know on which side you place your thing. In some places which already use the machine, the face of the person is blotted out, so the intrusion is reduced from nudity with identity to just a peep show at your private parts.

What are the alternatives? How about learning how to fly starting from 37,000 feet? For most of us, if the blast from the exploding airliner does not kill you the 37,000 foot fall will. Most of us are not birds.

There is competing technology called millimeter wave scanning. It bounces waves off of those walking near it. Unlike the x-ray backscatter, screeners can take a look at larger groups. So now, lots of people effectively get naked all at once. At least the wave scanner shows fewer details of your body parts.

Another alternative is to be more selective about who we let on an aircraft. Perhaps we should cancel commercial flights altogether and leave flying to the rich who can afford to buy their own jets. The philosophy is, if they want to blow themselves up go to it, but don’t take innocent holiday travelers with them. The problem is, most of us can't afford a private jet.

Perhaps we are making too much of a simple thing. If you happen to know an airport screener personally, just don't get into a poker game with him. He will know when to call your bluf!

The solution to the problem is not easy. Even with trade offs between detection and privacy compromised, the fruit cases who want to change the world through violence will be looking for ways to do it. Sure we got lucky this time. Still, Abdul has had a dramatic effect on all of us. The options are limited, invasion of privacy by your government may be the only way to stay safe when traveling by jet.

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