Saturday, 22 January 2011
The Illusion of Security
I was heading off on holiday with my long-suffering partner. We had some time booked basking in the Greek sun, and bags packed, had headed to the airport. The airport in question, was London Gatwick. London Gatwick, only slightly less tenuous than London Luton, London Stanstead, or the biscuit-taking, London Oxford. With the advent of HS2 I assume we can all expect flights to be advertised to London Birmingham before long. I digress…
Fool that I am, in my packing frenzy I had placed sun cream in my hand luggage. Two 200ml Nivea sun creamy spray things if I remember correctly. Now I'll admit I wasn't in a fantastic mood having queued for an hour like cattle, then being ordered to remove my dangerous looking shoes (flip flops) and assume a recognised stress position whilst being touched up by a failed police officer. I used to travel a lot with work, so I increasingly resented the portions of my life that I was never going to get back which were stolen from me going through (the illusion of) security. So I was not incredibly happy realising I was the architect of my further misery at wasting the best part of 20 sheets on sun cream I couldn't take through. Of course the staff are always only too happy to offer you the option of going back and checking your contraband in too. Two extra pieces of luggage, or one if I found some sellotape (£60), queued at check in for another hour, and then at 'security' for another hour (missed flight, £500). I don't know what Christmas Day is like at the house of the chap who went through my bag, but I can only imagine it has never been better than that moment. The look on his face as he got to confiscate my deadly sun cream, you would think he had just won the lottery. Simple things...
Still, my fault, and all in the interests of my own safety. Probably. Now I have a few points I am planning on making in this post which fall out of this overly-wordy but typical introduction. The first, I have already alluded to; the illusion of safety that these checks provide. Anyone who has driven around the west side of the M25 in rush hour will tell you, the best place from which to bring a passenger plane from Heathrow down, is the big bush by the lay-by just short of junction 15. It is not Terminal 5. All of these commuters sit and watch 30 planes an hour climb at tediously slow speeds and still relatively low heights above them as they sit in the big circular car park that is the M25. This point all comes down to technology. I hope there aren't too many surface to air missiles in the country out of the control of the proper authorities, but I am not so naive to think that with a UK border more porous than a PG Tips tea bag, if someone with enough means wanted one, they would not be able to get one.
So then we ask how they might do this and what we're doing to stop it. You can't walk a basic bomb onto a plane anymore (thanks to security measures) like you can a tube or bus (as well we know). That's a good thing, I am sure. However, going a touch more sophisticated, you can still shoot them down (see above) pretty easily given the means. One hopes the security services are onto 'the chatter' on those ones. Then even less crude, there are super clever bomb things like the chewing gum from Mission Impossible.
Now forgive me for making light of this area, but weapons development is a big market. As much as I always want us to win, I sometimes wonder what chance we have in the fight. There are a lot of people with a lot of reasons to want planes to blow up in the west; be they terrorists who are rather into that, companies who make money out of world conflict, or countries looking to alter the balance of power, there is no shortage and many other categories. The point is, when you wander through security you don't look at the staff and wonder whether they've just quit the SAS because it wasn't hardcore enough, or have just beaten Jack Bauer in an arm-wrestling and menacing whispering contest. You think McDonalds have been down-sizing.
As illustration of the skills of these employees I will take you about 5 hours later in my story. After suitably embarrassing myself (and my partner) with my tantrum over losing my sun cream we went to Greece. On unpacking my hand luggage I found a knife. A big, hard, shiny, metal knife. Attached to a big, hard, shiny, metal corkscrew. I can't remember when I put it in there, but there is was. I imagine about 2 inches of sharp steel and a 3 inch corkscrew. And again, metal. Not hemp. Yes, so avidly had the chap been searching for a bottle of water or sun cream (the easy wins) that he and his colleagues missed a deadly weapon. One that would be pretty handy in a hijack situation were the mood to take me.
So there you have the first couple of points about airport security. Someone can surely beat the passenger security measures; the desire and the money are probably both out there waiting to find the capability. Or cheaper than shooting it down or developing an undetectable explosive a passenger can take through, one could abuse a number of other avenues: Lesser security measures in other countries (cf Yemen); the thoroughly lax security employees experience air-side; or the legal liquid carry-on (as this lot did). My final point is on just that - the legal carry-on limit.
I am not a physicist, chemist, or weaponeer. So, I can't say this absolutely, but I'm going to take a punt anyhow and risk someone explaining to me why I am wrong. I am not entirely convinced that 101ml is the critical minimum limit for a liquid explosive. That is, I think a bomb made of 100ml of explosives will probably be as fatal as one constituting 101ml. Maybe because the legal limit of 100ml is a round number, maybe because I've seen too many films where we are told a teaspoon of 'this' can level a city block, maybe because I am an enduring cynic. Why I can't take 150 ml of something through, in one bottle, or 50ml in a 1/4 filled 200 ml bottle when Linda Lipstick behind me can take 22 100ml bottles crammed into her clear bag is beyond me. If you don't check all of the liquids, surely my 150ml or 50ml of potential nitro-glycerine poses slightly less of a threat that Linda's 2.2 litres?
Now I'm not saying test everyone's liquids and delay us all further, but at least that would make sense as a policy. This half-way house of arbitrary rules is just annoying - make your minds up. On a side note, the pharmaceuticals industry is cleaning up with its overpriced new 100ml bottles. There's a conspiracy theory in there somewhere...