Who goes there?

Posted by Peter Cochrane on January 1, 2002

Peter Cochrane ConceptLabs CA, Co-Founder

Why am I standing in line again with my shoes in my hand? It's not that I ever tried to hijack and aircraft on the last 50 flights across the Atlantic, or that I have any inclination to be a terrorist at all, this is just blanket security. The system now assumes that I am a terrorist, along with everyone else, until I have been proven innocent, not once, but on every single flight from now to eternity. This is not only dumb, it is all costing a fortune in time and people. In this line (queue if you are English!) are a lot of high value, high net worth individuals trying to traverse the planet, to do business, to create wealth and well being, what a waste! Don't take me wrong, I'm not against security, in fact I'm all for it, but I do not like the present level of stupidity. I just watched an elderly lady have her handbag searched and the security people removed a nail file, a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors. The gentleman immediately in front of me had his safety razor, yes his safety razor, confiscated. At this I just could not resist commenting to the security staff that it would be a pretty slow death - to be taken down a slice at a time by a safety razor.

Since the tragic NY events of 9/11 I have progressively trimmed down my luggage to the point where I know that there is nothing that will either trigger the electronic scanners, or indeed attract the attention of the person looking at an x-ray of all my equipment. For years I have travelled light, with just two bags, one containing my laptop and all the essentials, CDs, drives and backups and the other carrying no more than three days survival of clothing. My idea of travel is to never have to check-in a bag, never having to let go of my luggage, and carrying minimal clothing no matter how or where I go. The secret is to make use of hotel services for the washing and cleaning of clothes, and of course, for those difficult trips with nightly hops from one location to another, FedEx is ideal for the dispatching of clothes home, and the receiving of clean clothes at hotels in far flung places. But, suddenly, security has become the major factor in my efficiency equation!

Security is an incredibly difficult problem and it is fundamentally impossible to achieve 100% detection. All we can hope for is a minimisation of risk. But as I stand here (again) with shoes in hand, having yet another body searched, my luggage scanned, I find it paradoxical that I have just walked through unchallenged with pens and credit cards. All of these make super weapons for these of malicious intent. Moreover when I get onto the flight line side of security, I can go to any number of stores and purchase sharp objects that are potential weapons - a broken wine or whiskey bottle for example. And during that in-flight meal, I am given a plastic knife and fork that are actually more dangerous than the mental counterparts they replaced. What are we doing? Despite the number of people killed in NY on 9/11 air travel is still by far the safest means of travel.

AXIOM 1: If I wasn't a terrorist on the last 50 flights - it is highly unlikely that I will be a terrorist on this flight.

AXIOM 2: As a serving member of both UK & USA companies, a father of 4 children with a wife all predominantly living and travelling in Christian countries - it is highly unlikely that I will be a terrorist on this flight.

AXIOM 3: As someone with a high security rating on record - it is highly unlikely that I will be a terrorist on this flight.

AXIOM 4: I want to live - and I have no intention of being a terrorist on the next 50 flights, or indeed any flights ever!

So, is there something more intelligent that could be done to ensure the security and safety of all passengers and speed our passage through airports internationally? It seems to me this is principally an information problem in that all the data about us is available somewhere, the problem is it isn't available at the airport you happen to be at. You would think that a regular traveller on a global carrier would be recognised and let through security more readily and easily than the random or irregular passenger who suddenly turns up. Well I think it goes like this. We have the technology to now recognise the human face, hands, fingers, body, voice, lips, and various parameters of the eye including retina and iris. There are also many other biometric indicators to help identify us individually to a far higher degree of certainty than someone looking at a cardboard book with a black and white photograph, as we stream through 100's per hour at some boarder crossing.

Many years ago I volunteered to accept a chip implant that would replace my passport and all my credit, medical, loyalty and membership cards, and immediately identify me so I could pass through any form of security barrier unimpeded. At the time this caused a considerable outcry as the technology had just been introduced for use in animals. All manor of objections appeared in the media, but it seems to me, to now becoming an imperative. As a regular transatlantic flyer I can tell you that the time to travel to and from the airport, the time to traverse security and immigration at both sides of the Atlantic now exceeds the time to fly from one continent to the other.

In priority order our ability to recognise people electronically goes like this. Implanted chips in the form of a transponder (a la aircraft control systems) concealed at some point know only to us as an individual, provides the highest level of security and information. This can include our medical records, banking details and insurance, flight and criminal to be made available to anywhere to those with an appropriate level of authority. Second on the list is iris recognition, which is far superior to any genetic or biometric test in the strict sense. But to some degree we would need to retrieve the information on an identified individual, from some distant country, in a matter of milliseconds. This is not impossible or expensive, just a little more inconvenient. Next comes the retina, but this requires a positive intrusion with a laser scanner, unlike the iris scanner, which only requires a photographic principle. Bluntly people get very worried about having their eyes scanned with lasers or any intrusive test so this is not a popular technique but it is a reliable one. Unfortunately the simplest, the cheapest and the most popular are the worst from the point of view of accuracy. Facial recognition, finger prints, voice prints and lip prints are all viable, relatively inexpensive but suffer from high rejection rates or failures. But there is a saving grace here that is very simple to realise. A voice-print has an error rate around 1 in 100, facial recognition is much higher at about 1 in 1000 whilst finger prints is better still at about 1 in 100,000. Unfortunately anything to do with the lips is always offset by, dare I say, lipstick, or lip balm, and even our state of health. But if we were to concatenate face, finger print recognition and voice recognition at only $500 per test in terms of equipment the error probability or rejection rate would then only be 1 in 10Bn. Iris scanners regularly achieve figures in excess of this and are considerably better than DNA sampling. So the technology to recognise people with great accuracy is available, and, ergo, so is the technology to identify known or likely terrorists. But what is required is the network capable of providing all the necessary connectivity. In this new century such a network will be an essential for any 1st World country wishing to minimise the risk of external and internal attack.

Our species currently flies over 700Bn passenger miles per year, and travels over 600Bn passenger miles by road. From a risk perspective a New York situation every year would still see flying as far less dangerous than driving! However, our inability (as a society) to assess probabilities and think rationally about risk will most likely see us wasting huge resources on the in insignificant like Anthrax and BSE for example. What is absolutely clear is that there is no one single technique that will ensure our safety as we travel. There is however a plethora of techniques that we can employ, and more especially those based on IT networks, that can increase safety levels very significantly. All of the terrorist that were involved in the 9/11 attack had left a trail of information across the planet that pointed to them as individuals, their organisations in particular, and the likelihood of an imminent attack. The key problem was the information was not collated, mined, analysed and the results were not presented. Over a decade ago at least one report was compiled that suggested that future terrorism might see aircraft used as flying bombs. Unfortunately this was not only dismissed it was discarded as being off the scale, totally irrational and so unlikely not to be a risk. I think we just learned a very valuable lesson, the free world; the free people have to guard against a future of attacks that will come from directions that are hard to conceive. It is absolutely essential that we all gain from the present situation, think it through, create scenarios that will be most likely to occur in future, and then create the IT systems that can track vast amounts of data, collate the results and point to people and organisation that present high risk. Human beings cannot do this only machines have that ability. We can only be vigilant and create the systems that will protect us in the future. In my view it starts with personal information, and I'm afraid in the 21st century our right to privacy is not just going to be violated it is going to be by-passed as we freely surrender it to ensure our own safety and that of our fellow man.

For me as a regular traveller, bluntly I don't care about any of this provided I am reasonably safe. Anyone can have any information about me as an individual and my organisation in particular that will increase, improve or ensure safety. I have to say I am still ready and willing to accept the implanted chip technology that will allow me to walk into any airport anywhere and gain immediate access to the aircraft without having yet another body search.

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