Calls for Full-Body Screening Grow
(Bloomberg)—A suspected terrorist's attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner may override privacy concerns and intensify a push for full-body scanning equipment at airports as the U.S. plans to buy more of the machines.
U.S. officials charged a 23-year-old Nigerian man with trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas Day. President Barack Obama said yesterday he ordered a thorough review of the episode and called for new scrutiny of screening policies and technologies.
The Transportation Security Administration, which runs airport security checkpoints, intends to buy 300 advanced imagers next year, said Greg Soule, an agency spokesman. That would be in addition to 150 machines it ordered in October from OSI Systems Inc.'s Rapiscan unit, a Hawthorne, California-based maker of equipment that can detect liquids and other potential explosives beneath clothing.
"We've been on the phone a lot with TSA about how to expedite delivery" since last week's incident, Peter Kant, an executive vice president for Rapiscan, said yesterday in an interview.
Metal detectors currently used to screen passengers wouldn't have found the explosive allegedly carried aboard by the suspect, said former Federal Aviation Administration security chief Billie Vincent. Only more sophisticated devices such as low-level X-rays and millimeter-wave technology would work, Vincent said.
Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, called for more widespread use of the full-body scanners after the aborted attack.
Lucky This Time "We were very lucky this time but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened," Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement yesterday.
The committee said it would hold a hearing next month on airline security and how the alleged terrorist got onto the plane.
The flight, carrying 278 passengers, was en route from Amsterdam when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab mixed explosive substances under a blanket on his lap, the U.S. Justice Department said. Passengers subdued and restrained him until the plane landed safely.
Abdulmutallab wasn't screened by a full-body scanner when he passed through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on the way to Detroit, Judith Sluiter, a spokeswoman for the Dutch National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, said yesterday.
"We must use technology that does what it promises and processes that make common sense," Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said yesterday in a statement. "I urge the administration to work diplomatically with our foreign partners to ensure that the most effective technology is installed at airports worldwide."
Advanced Equipment Companies such as OSI, Smiths Group Plc, Safran SA and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. may benefit from any requirement that airports get more security equipment. London-based Smiths is the world's biggest maker of airport scanners. Safran, based in Paris, is the world leader in biometric technologies, such as fingerprint scanners. New York-based L-3 also makes scanners for airport use.
L-3 has "developed a more sophisticated system that could prevent smuggling of almost anything on the body," said Howard Rubel, an analyst at Jefferies & Co., who has a "hold" rating on the stock. "Speed and privacy issues have slowed its introduction."
Jennifer Barton, a spokeswoman for New York-based L-3, didn't respond to a phone call seeking comment.
L-3 rose 58 cents to $87.38 at 9:48 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Yesterday it reached $86.80, the highest closing price since October 2008. OSI rose 3 cents to $24.50 in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. Yesterday's 11 percent gain was the biggest since Jan. 29.
Airport-Security Funds The $25 million purchase for the 150 Rapiscan machines was made with some of the TSA's $1 billion in airport-security funds in the $787 billion economic stimulus package, said Soule, the security administration spokesman.
The company has delivered about 40 machines so far to the agency, Rapiscan's Kant said.
The Transportation Security Administration has been adding low-level X-rays and millimeter-wave technology machines to find explosives. There are 40 millimeter-wave machines made by L-3 at 19 airports, Soule said.
Using full-body imaging technology is voluntary for passengers, the security administration said. Those who do not wish to receive millimeter wave screening will undergo metal detector screening and a pat-down, according to the agency.
Privacy Concerns Body imaging has been criticized by some advocacy groups as an invasion of privacy. Kant said his company has mitigated that concern by blurring body images and having technicians viewing the images in a different location from the screening equipment.
"There have been privacy concerns expressed about the use of these whole body-imaging devices, but I think those privacy concerns, which are, frankly, mild, have to fall in the face of the ability of these machines to detect material like this," Lieberman said on "Fox News Sunday" on Dec. 27.
Using technology for every threat may cost more and reduce risk less than measures such as increasing visa reviews in "high-risk" countries, said David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.
"Every time we have an episode, we should not rush to judgment and spend billions of dollars deploying the newfangled technology that will meet a very narrow sliver of the threat," said Schanzer. "That's not a satisfying response that politicians can make. Politicians feel an urgent need to respond to the threats today."
With assistance from Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta, Jonathan Salant and Gopal Ratnam in Washington and Martijn van der Starre in Amsterdam. Editors: Joe Richter, Joe Winski
To contact the reporter on this story: Angela Greiling Keane in Washington or email@example.com