TSA Seeks New Devices To Cut Back On Pat-Downs – Really?

11 Jun

I am one of those people who is blessed — or cursed — with a long memory.  I can’t tell you what I ate for dinner last week, but I can probably tell you where we met and even what you were wearing when we met.  This blessing comes in really handy as a writer, because I do tend to remember most of my aviation stories.

So when I saw this headline — Handheld device sought to reduce frequency of controversial pat-down searches at airports — in Government Security News magazine, a little bell went off in my head.  Regular readers know that I covered airports and security for almost five years at Aviation Week.  I also created the now-defunct Towers and Tarmacs blog, which covered the same topics.

GSN reports that TSA has put out a proposal to potential vendors for the following in a handheld device: (a) the device should be able to be operated with only one hand during screening, (b) it should weigh less than five pounds, (c) it should not be “tethered” to a desktop computer, power supply or external detection unit, (d) it should be able to detect metal and explosives, (e) it should handle the sampling, scanning and analysis as a single step, (f) results should be obtained in less than 15 seconds, and (g) the device should be ready to screen the next passenger in less than one minute.

So as my brain scanned the phrases “TSA” and “hand-held devices,” several things popped up.  I remember all this new technology TSA was exploring to make the whole security process quicker but still help the agency meet its mission.  These include:

  • In August 2006, TSA started exploring a shoe x-ray that would have allowed us to keep our footwear on during the screening process;
  • In October, my former AvWeek colleague John Doyle wrote about a Canadian company that had created a device that attached to existing x-ray machines to scan liquids for explosives and weapons that was so sensitive it could tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi;
  • A month later, TSA announced it had purchased 600 bottle scanners and would start by deploying 200 of them at six airports; and
  • In January 2007, TSA was testing CastScope, a device that could scan passengers wearing casts

According to the New York Times, the Dept. of Homeland Security has spent almost $40 billion on rebuilding aviation security.  And despite that, we’re still subjected to basic pat-downs if technology fails. There’s got to be a better — and cheaper — way.

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