Posts filed under ‘Airport security’

No flight for you

I know that some of you will think I’m hysterical or paranoid – take your pick – but I’m not giving up on the issue of full-body scanners. Installing these scanners at airports around the world and looking on all of us as suspects is pure theatre. To be seen to be doing something, anything.

In previous posts, I outlined my thoughts. Go here and here for a refresher course. I cynically suggested that sooner rather than later we would be denied the ability to get on a plane if our asses were hauled aside and we were asked to undergo the “privilege” of having a scan but refused. I have asked the question of whether or not Islamic women, being subjected to body scans, violates Islamic rules of public modesty.

And this week, I heard of the first example of a Muslim woman being barred from boarding a flight because she refused to undergo a full-body scan.  My understanding is that full-body scanners installed in airports like Heathrow are (for the moment) not mandatory for all passengers. What happens is security staff  “select” passengers at random or for some other reason (like passenger profiling) and haul them off for a scan.

I don’t know why this woman (and her female companion who also refused to be scanned) was selected. One would hope it’s not because she is a Muslim and therefore automatically (and stereotypically) considered to be a higher threat (because it’s the Muslims who want to blow up the world don’t you know? It couldn’t be non-Muslim sickos and whackos now could it!).  The woman decided to forfeit her ticket to Pakistan rather than suffer the indignity of a full-body scan.

Now, I am not of the Islamic faith and do not declare any special knowledge of it. But from my limited understanding of Islamic ethics, modesty is part of faith and since God knows and sees everything, a true believer would feel “shy” in front of God and therefore wish to adopt modest dress and certainly would not wish to display “one’s bits”.

The full-body scanners show the outline of passenger’s genitals. My understanding is that the  Qur’an declares it is a violation of Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women. Full stop. Period.

So what to do? BIG Government bleats that we need to be protected and therefore must be scanned, monitored, searched, surveilled to death. But when religion comes face to face with the Nanny State and its hysteria over security, what to do?

I’m not sure why the scanners can’t be adapted to simply show an outline of the body sans “bits and pieces” or why those of the Islamic faith or those like me, who declare full-body scanners an invasion of personal privacy, can’t simply get the pat-down, frisking business. After all, the full-body scanners did not stop the Underwear Bomber.

I know that a cat fight might be looming between the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the British Government (who have installed scanners at Heathrow and Manchester airports). The Commission has written a letter to UK Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, which you can read here.  But I’ll give you the gist of the letter:

  • the Commission has not seen sufficient evidence that the decision to deploy full-body scanners complies with the general or specific equality duties under the Race Relations Act 1976, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (aka: dudes you might be acting in an unlawful, unfair or discriminatory manner);
  • the Commission is concerned that a full equality impact assessment was never done, which could lead to the serious risk that a measure introduced to protect the travelling public will have unintended discriminatory consequences;
  • the Commission is concerned about the implications of the introduction of body scanners for the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (dudes: you could be in serious breach of EU privacy laws = BIG cat fight);
  • the Commission is concerned about the selection criteria for scanning.

I’m not sure if his Lordship has responded to the EHRC but clearly the Commission has fired a warning shot. Lord Adonis can be found muttering away in Hansard about passengers being selected for scanning but seems to me there is no transparency around how passengers are selected nor any indication of whether a passenger can challenge why they have been selected.

I remain unconvinced that full-body scanners will help protect us. Terrorists come in all shapes, colours, sizes and religions. I don’t think Muslims were busy conducting the paramilitary campaigns of the IRA in 1970s Northern Ireland and England. BIG government is the terrorist amongst us – by instilling fear in us to achieve political goals. I simply have to look up the definition of “terrorism” to find out who the real terrorists are:

“the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear”

Most likely the Israelis are chuckling about the UK and the US obsession with airport security and its blind faith in scanners and obtrusive technology. The former head of security for the Israeli national airline, El Al, has said that the airline has prevented terrorism in the air by making sure every passenger is interviewed by a well-trained agent prior to check-in. Seems sensible to me: I would not object to an interview.

March 7, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Scan baby, sign here

Exposed ... Shahrukh Khan says he signed his X-ray scan, just like this image taken from a computer screen at Manchester Airport.Did I not cynically suggest in a recent post that sooner or later scans of the naked bodies of Hollywood stars would miraculously pop out of those full-body scanners that are being foisted on us at international airports? You know, the scanners we’re told cannot possibly store naked images of passengers because they are deleted?

The Transportation Security Administration (TS) has sworn black and blue that the scanners do not have the ability to scan and store images. But the US Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained technical specifications from 2008 that pointed to the TSA wanting scanners that could store and transmit images when in test mode. And there are further suggestions that full-body scanners operating in 19 US airports can store and export captured images. So if they have this capability in test mode is the TSA lying through their chops?

Oh but back to Hollywood. I got that one wrong. It’s naked images of Bollywood stars that are popping out of the scanners. Shah Rukh Khan is apparently a Bollywood heart throb and claims that, following a full-body scan at Heathrow airport, he was asked by two female security officers to plonk his autograph on a printout of his naked image. Airport authorities are busy denying saying noooooo that can’t possibly happen but Khan is sticking to his guns.

Of course, the Australian Government is jumping onto the scanning bandwagon and announced the full-body scanners will be adopted around Australia from 2011 as part of a $200 million airport security boost. And if you are lucky enough to be hauled into the scanning booths but decline, you won’t be allowed to board the plane.

The South Africans appear to be more sensible, with the Airports Company of SA (Acsa) saying that airports will not be fitted out with scanners.

Meanwhile, I’m seeing more reports coming out, like this one, suggesting that terahertz waves (which are used in full-body scanners) can rip into human DNA and raises the question – what level of terahertz exposure is safe for travellers to be exposed to?

Now, there is one hot bed of tension we should examine: Israel. Israel’s national airline has a very safe record and the Israelis don’t waste money on expensive equipment like body scanners. They place more emphasis on passenger profiling and behaviour. Perhaps a lesson or two could be learnt from them.

UPDATE: May 7 2010 – airport security screener suspended after assaulting colleague who joked about him having a small penis after he walked through a scanner.

February 11, 2010 at 4:37 am Leave a comment

Get the kid off the list

What the? The Transport Security Administration (TSA) in the US has clearly lost the plot. Instead of putting effort into sharing intelligence and stopping terrorists before they even get to the airport, they prefer to see an 8-year old cub scout as a potential terrorist.

No joke, this is an excellent example of the stupidity of the climate of fear we are now living in. The young chap in question, Mikey Hicks, shares a name (Michael Hicks) with someone on the TSA no-fly list. Apparently, when Mikey was a little baby, he was denied a seat on a plane to Florida because his name was on the “selectee list” so he was classified as suspicious. And the poor little chap was frisked by airport goons at the age of two. Apparently, the selectee list is not as bad as being on the no-fly list but it still triggers off a round of frisking and grilling for people because they have to go through security screening hoops.

Mikey and his parents were on their way to the Bahamas in the New Year when Mikey was once again hauled aside and frisked. His mother says:

Up your arms, down your arms, up your crotch — someone is patting your 8-year-old down like he’s a criminal….A terrorist can blow his underwear up and they don’t catch him. But my 8-year-old can’t walk through security without being frisked.

Mikey’s father is also named Michael Hicks but was only hauled off for questioning for the first time as they were heading off to the Bahamas.

Now, according to the TSA, no kids on are the no-fly or selectee lists. So how are they explaining constantly traumatising an 8-year old cub scout?? For goodness’ sake, the poor kid was born less than a month before 9/11, so logic and sense (what the TSA seems to be missing) would tell you that Mikey is not likely to be a terrorist. So how the hell does he get off THE LIST??

It reminds me of a list I’m on.  Five years ago, I was given a laptop at work to use on the train or when I work from home. But four years ago, I gave up the laptop (never seemed to work remotely) and told the IT dudes to take me off “the list”. But once a year, I get an email from the finance types asking me to declare how I’ve been using the laptop (for tax purposes). My response is always the same “I haven’t been on this list for four years.” This year, I had a hissy fit and emails flew everywhere – I’m hoping I’m off THE LIST.

Why is it that lists are seen as a way of containing, controlling, monitoring? The underwear bomber’s name (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) was one of more than 500,000 in a broad terror data base at the National Counterterrorism Centre. Despite being a suss person, neither US Intelligence nor airport security hauled him aside – he waltzed onto a plane. So clearly the list that contained his name was ineffectual.

BTW: notice how in the media Abdulmutallab is referred to as the “underwear bomber” or his exploits are called “The Christmas Day bombing” (albeit with the words “failed” or “attempt” following). But the media hypes up the illusion that there was a bombing when in fact there was not. This herds the populace into believing that they should fear “terrorists”, fear people with foreign (most likely Middle Eastern) names, or fear 8-year olds. And the result of this is what has emerged from a recent Pew Research poll – Americans have been been whipped into a frenzy with 58% believing the government has not gone far enough to protect against terrorist attacks compared to 27% who believe it has gone too far in restricting civil liberties (had I been surveyed, I would have been with the 27%).

This contrasts with an earlier 2009 poll where 40% said the government was not doing enough to protect against terrorists and 36% were more concerned about civil liberties.  Then the underwear bomber comes along (escapes through the clutches of US intelligence yet doesn’t actually bomb anything) and you get a whole heap of sheep willingly giving up constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties.

What I don’t understand is why people don’t challenge the circus of “watch lists”, “selectee lists”, DNA databases and so on. Why not ask Governments to provide security through means other than lists and databases that haul 8-year old kids aside to be frisked.

I have a suspicion that the notion of “civil liberties” is not understood well. It’s not about your freedom to choose not to eat meat or drink coffee instead of tea. I suspect that people don’t think deeply enough about what civil liberties refer to, so are quite willing to allow the Nanny State to x-ray us at airports, frisk us, place our names on lists, monitor us.  This has me thinking – expect a long post soon!

January 24, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

2020: not looking so good

Do you ever wonder what the world will be like in 2050? Frankly, I think we’ll all be stuffed and the planet frizzled up. But if the climate change scientists are wrong, then what do we have to look forward to?

I had a hissy fit over full-body scanners being installed in airports as a knee-jerk reaction to the underwear bomber – so that led me to thinking – why bother with the tardis-like machines that x-ray the heck out of you? Why not have machines that quickly read a passenger’s mind? Shove us in booths with flashing lights and zapping sounds (for special effects) and read our minds to see if we have evil intentions to blow up planes.

Mmmm…..seems there are some great minds out there thinking the same thing. Whilst the technology isn’t quite there yet to read what’s on my mind, an Israeli-based company called WeCU are developing “brain-fingerprinting“. It involves a combination of infra-red technology, remote sensors, and flashing subliminal images (such as symbols associated with a certain terrorist group), which will detect someone’s stress reactions. I don’t think you would get shoved into a tardis-like booth as it seems the sensors would be hidden and assess passengers as they mill around an airport. Perhaps, sensors will be hidden in walls and seats. And then there’s a suggestion that airport walls might be alive with the sound of….not music…but sophisticated sensors that will literally sniff out would-be terrorists.

Crikey, as we say in Australia! But what will the world of work be like? And what medical advances will there be? The Independent rounded up some futurist dudes and asked them to imagine the world in 2020 (mainly the UK). I think they should have imagined 2050 but they stuck to 2020. And here’s what futurists think our world might be like:

  • the 2010s will be called DOA – the Decade of Austerity. Frankly, this is in line with my thinking: we’ll still be feeling the effects of the GFC and there’ll be a crisis in public finance. Carbon taxes will make people think twice about purchasing new appliances or doing home improvements (gee: maybe we’ll return to a time when we mended things and kept items for years rather than tossing them out). Fair trade goods will be more popular.
  • there’s an increase in neighbourliness. Property prices never returned to the dizzy heights of the start of the millennium, so people stay in their homes longer and shun the excesses of pre-GFC times.
  • SADS or Shared Adult Dwellings are multi-occupancy homes that are popular with single people under 35 or over 65 who realise they can live more cheaply sharing costs whilst still maintaining independence.
  • at airports “naked x-ray machines” will be the norm and passengers will be required to use see-through suitcases or purses. One futurist is suggesting that every passenger will have to undergo an interview just to get on a plane (I don’t think he’s wrong about this actually). There’s even a suggestion that a budget airline has introduced a “standing room only” service on its planes (mmm….if this comes to fruition, I’d bet it’s Ryanair that first introduces this service).
  • because of rising fuel costs (oil will be over US$300 a barrel) people abandon cars and cities have car graveyards. Fast electric cars that you unlock via fingerprint scanners are the norm.
  • organs and tissues will be grown from stem cells making it possible to grow a replacement heart for example.
  • blogs, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email are seen as middle-aged obsessions because people under 25 actually like to talk to people face-to-face.
  • there is a swing towards wanting leaders and politicians who are older and more experienced, rather than young, untested Presidents or Prime Ministers.
  • a decade of economic woes finally leads to the collapse of free admission to national museums and galleries.
  • by 2020, citizens have grown accustomed to the Nanny State. The State has made smoking and alcohol unacceptable social habits. Employees are forced to submit to mandatory urine testing to flush out anyone who has defied the smoking or alcohol bans.
  • work-life balance and flexible working hours has died out, replaced with more presenteeism and clock-watching. Because of the after-effects of the 2008/2009 recession and the need for Governments to pay off humongous public debt, a new generation of employees work harder.
  • CCTV cameras are everywhere, scanning faces in shopping centres and eavesdropping on conversations (heck, I think this is wrong: this won’t happen in 2020, it will be 2015 or sooner if you ask me. “Listening” CCTV cams are already being trialled in Scotland and artificial intelligence software is being used to “teach” CCTV cams to recognise aggressive sounds such as breaking glass). Personally, I think that biometrics will mean all CCTV cams will be loaded up with a scan of our faces and they’ll use this to monitor us in shopping centres and public spaces.
  • but most theft is now committed on the Internet, so the CCTV and biometrics paranoia is largely ineffective. Tasers, stun grenades, tranquillizer darts and hand-held computers are used by police to combat crime.
  • DNA of citizens will be stored in a central database and because of severe public spending cuts, there’s a large army of civilian investigators involved in police work.
  • climate change has been slower than predicted by scientists back in 2009 but marine life has migrated northwards, sea levels have risen, the UK is warmer and sharks are sighted off the UK coast. One futurist is even hedging his bets that the UK might experience 40℃/104℉ temperatures. Wild weather patterns will also be experienced.

The article is in two-parts but I’ve summarised the main stuff for you. I would add to these predictions by suggesting that the 5-bedroom McMansion homes everyone seems to be so keen on will be albatrosses around homeowner’s necks by 2020 if not before. You won’t be able to sell them because of rising electricity costs and a return (I believe) to a simpler life.

What do you think the world will be like in 2020 or beyond?

January 17, 2010 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Scan, baby, scan

I did not have to gaze into any crystal ball to foretell that we, the weary traveller, would have to face increased security at airports because of the “underwear bomber“. (Imagine going down in history being called the “underwear bomber”). Yet again, we have authorities rushing around installing full-body scanners so they can look to be talking tough and doing something, anything in the face of alleged threats. The Canadians seem to very anxious to be seen in a flurry of reaction, purchasing 44 scanners in the wake of the underwear bomber.

I’ve blogged before about full-body scanners and invasion of privacy. But if any airport or private security dudes are reading this blog, rush off to read 5 reasons why body scanners will probably not resolve the terrorist problem. And pay particular attention to point 2 and why the “underwear bomber” probably would not have been detected.

Michael Chertoff, who was homeland security secretary from 2005 to 2009, is calling for the widespread expansion of whole-body imaging scanners that use radio waves or X-rays to reveal objects beneath a person’s clothes. (Chertoff BTW has a consultancy that represents Rapiscan, a company manufacturing body scanners.) Yeah, well I’d like to shove this dude into a booth and give him the equivalent of a digital strip search. These scanners show the outline of genitalia – see the photo accompanying this post or, better yet, the one below.

Now, call me cynical but I can foretell a time when some Hollywood star’s digital naked image will find its way miraculously onto the Internet courtesy of some scanning dude wanting to make a quick buck.

And tell me how scanning is not violating child pornography laws? Are you fine with: first of all, your child being viewed as a potential terrorist and secondly, your kid basically being lined up against a wall and a naked image produced? Guys: are you fine with your wife or tween-age daughter being seen naked? And what about Islamic women being subjected to scans: will this not violate Islamic rules of public modesty?

Call me cynical again but what strict processes will be put into place to ensure that scanning personnel won’t show their family and friends images of celebrities or people with odd body features or grandma’s underpants? What’s to ensure that images of kids won’t fall into the hands of pedophiles? Authorities are saying that scanners will be used alongside metal detectors and pat-down searches. So for now, full-body scanning isn’t mandatory but wait….when private corporations stand to make millions out of scanners being mandatory, you can bet your bottom dollar that we’ll all be subjected to scanning sooner rather than latter.

There are two types of scanners: scanners using “millimetre-wave” technology and x-ray scanners. Scanners using millimetre-waves would not have detected the 3oz of the chemical powder PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) that Abdulmutallab had stuffed up his underwear. Because this material is low density the millimetre waves pass through and the object is not shown on screen. X-ray scanners (called backscatter scanners) penetrate one-tenth of an inch into the body, which is enough to detect any devices or drugs hidden just under the skin. Manufacturers are saying the risk of irradiation is low, 1% or less of the radiation in a dental X-ray but consider the cumulative effects. For frequent flyers, what are the health risks of ongoing x-rays? A 2004 study suggested that 0.6% of all cancers diagnosed in the UK are due to medical X-rays. This would amount to around 700 of the 124,000 new cases of cancer in the UK each year. Flying for 30 hours BTW is equivalent to one chest x-ray.

And a leading US expert on the biological effects of x-ray radiation, Dr. John Gofman, who has conducted exhaustive studies, concludes that there is NO SAFE DOSE-LEVEL of ionizing radiation. His studies suggest that radiation from x-rays and treatment is a causal co-factor in 50% of cancers in the US.

UPDATE: Natural News article – full-body scanners may damage human DNA.

Back in November 2008, the European Union seemed to be displaying some sense when they shelved plans to introduce scanners but are now deeply divided over whether to introduce this intrusive technology or not. It’s possible the EU may issue a binding regulation demanding use of imaging technology.

You know, it would be far smarter if authorities spent millions on improved and collaborative intelligence instead of full-body scanners. We’ve put up with increased security measures since 9/11 but did this stop Abdulmutallab from smuggling explosives onto a jet airliner? NOOOOOOOOOOO.  From all I’ve read, the CIA (who was contacted by Abdulmutallab’s father) declined to share information about Abdulmutallab with the National Counterterrorism Center, which may have placed him on the “no fly” list. The National Security Agency was also busy eavesdropping on a conversation that discussed a plot to use a Nigerian man for a coming terrorist attack but the NSA didn’t seem to have the information the CIA had or didn’t share it with other agencies. So there was an intelligence breakdown and a pattern of information that could have pointed to a terrorist threat was not detected by US security agencies.

Instead of seeing every citizen as a potential terrorist and subjecting us to one more intrusion on our personal privacy and dignity, why not enhance intelligence operations and stop any terrorist from even getting to an airport car park?

Let’s recall the words of Hermann Goering:

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

If we keep allowing the nanny state to contain us in a climate of fear, then we deserve the suffocating future we’ll all end up in.

UPDATE: May 19 2010 “Naked” scanners may increase cancer risk.

January 10, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

We’re all suspects

The circus surrounding the alleged “underwear bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, reveals what authorities should know but are probably too stubborn to admit – airport security, x-rays and scanners are ineffectual. The rigmarole we go through to get on a plane does not necessarily halt a determined terrorist or suicide bomber.

I was about to do a post on this very issue but you have thankfully been spared my rantings because Andrew Gilligan says it far better than me in The Age in an article entitled “Treating everyone as a suspect is absurd“. I urge you to read his article in full. He interviewed an intelligence expert who said that airport security is merely ”theatre”, designed to reassure the public rather than to stop would-be bombers. And the chilling part of his article is his relating of how a woman breezed easily through 24 different airports without being detected and with the complete components of a bomb concealed on her body.

But it’s the conclusion of his article I find very powerful:

Airport security means, above all, starting long before the airport, with intelligence. Abdulmutallab was already known to the authorities, and on a watch list; it should therefore have been very easy to single him out for extra checks. That was the failure in this case. That is the answer, not ever more machines, ever more guards, and ever more grannies taking off their shoes.

One of the defining characteristics of Western governments, such as Britain’s Labour Government – from child-molester checks on school volunteers to ID cards – is its belief that everyone is a suspect. Not only is that illiberal, it just doesn’t work. What it means is that the guilty get missed because the authorities are spending too much time hassling the innocent. That lesson applies as much to airport security as to any other area.”

Bravo is all I can say.

January 2, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Nationality is not genetic

Mouth swabWhat the? Am I living in some parallel universe? One occupied by a pack of racist, fear-mongering dudes? One in which nationality and ethnicity are being viewed as one and the same thing (which they’re not)?

I’ve come across another whacko project. At first, I thought the date was April 1 but this seems to be no April Fools’ joke. And it seems that the UK has once again lost the plot. Not content to surveil the heck out of its poor citizens, the UK is now proposing to – wait for it – use DNA and isotope analysis of tissue from asylum seekers to evaluate their nationality. Yes folks, you read correctly – to evaluate nationality.

The Human Provenance pilot project was launched quietly in mid-September 2009 (yeah, if it was announced there would have been a revolution!) by the U.K. Border Agency and will run until June 2010.  Can you believe that asylum-seekers (including children)  are being subjected to mouth swabs for mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome testing and isotope analyses of hair and nail samples in an effort “to help identify a person’s true country of origin.” The program is voluntary so they say. But asylum-seekers are not likely to say “no thanks” because saying no would mean the boot out of the UK (ah, actually that might be a good thing).

Now, it’s true that refugees have been desperately trying to get to the UK from the French port of Calais, just as more boatpeople have been attempting to get to Australia. So some examination of who is a legitimate asylum-seeker might be necessary.  However, the project seems to be confusing nationality with ethnicity.

One aim of the project is to find out if asylum-seekers claiming to be from Somalia are actually from another African country such as Kenya. As one super-smart geneticist points out:

“genes don’t respect national borders, as many legitimate citizens are migrants or direct descendants of migrants, and many national borders split ethnic groups.”

And a pioneer in human DNA fingerprinting has this to say: “The Borders Agency is clearly making huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa; the extensive research needed to determine population structure and the ability or otherwise of DNA to pinpoint ethnic origin in this region simply has not been done. Even if it did work (which I doubt), assigning a person to a population does not establish nationality – people move! The whole proposal is naive and scientifically flawed.”

Worse than being naive and scientifically flawed, there’s an echo of eugenics and Nazis ringing in my ears with this project.  Didn’t those whacko Nazis use nose calipers to “scientifically” determine ethnicity?

Science Insider is asking some very sensible questions about this project – a prime one being who is conducting the test and analysing the results? Some Border Agency official who’s been given a 20 minute crash course in validating DNA?? And some well-known geneticists and isotope specialists are making their thoughts loud and clear here.

And I’d ask: have the Border Agency dudes considered for one moment the issue of traumatising a child? Many children from Africa are the product of rape, so the child’s father may not in fact be genetically related.

This is the sort of daft stuff I fear: idiots and third-rate pseudo-scientists messing around with technology, wasting taxpayers money, in their misguided, paternalistic attempts to profile, surveil and control. In the absence of public debate and a legislative and policy framework to guide and supervise their actions, this is just bad science and morally wrong. Asylum-seekers are not guinea pigs to be subjected to lab tests.

It seems that public outcry and criticism from geneticists and scientists has whacked the UK Border Agency over the head enough to make them retreat – DNA evidence will still be collected but analysed later and will not currently be used for individual case decisions.

Mmmm…at least the whole debacle reveals what idiots are out there in Government and what whacko ideas they come up with.

October 13, 2009 at 2:00 am 5 comments

Half-baked cat fight

flying-cat-fight.jpg image by dankfern

Dear reader..imagine my shock, horror, FEEEEAAAR even when confronted with……

Well, let me take a step back. I had to shoot across the Tasman for a few days last week to visit my (literally) last remaining relative on the planet. My elderly uncle, who is in his 80s. Now, I realise this makes me seem incredibly ancient if you think about it – my last remaining next-of-kin who is in his 80s. But….I was born to an older mother and father and my nearest cousin is 18 years older than me. This might help you to visualise me as less than 80 years old (I hope).

I digress. So…I had to apply for a new NZ passport as the old one was just about to expire. Prior to 2005, the writing on the front of the passport (which I think was in silver) would completely rub off. When I handed in my old passport, the consulate people here in Sydney laughed because literally nothing was left on that passport cover to say what country I belonged to. But now I’m the owner of a very shiny new passport with gold writing on the cover. I was NOT happy to see that it is an E-passport with the dreaded micro chip. I searched for secretive ways to get rid of the chip but to no avail.

Regular ThinkingShift readers will know that I am often hauled aside at immigration for bomb-testing. So I was poised, ready, waiting. But this time, something more exciting happened to me. I was going through passport control, outward bound to NZ, when…my shiny new passport was confiscated and I was hauled off for questioning. No explanation. Just “come over here please and wait here”.

Had my many posts about biometrics and surveillance finally caught up with me I wondered? (I recently declined an invite to China because I thought my posts on China might get me hauled off). I sat like a young school kid outside the mirror-walled office, just behind passport control.  I had visions of ASIO types behind that mirrored window sussing me out – did I look nervous, suspicious?

After about 5 mins, a dude walked out and handed me my passport and said “have a nice flight”. What??? No grilling? No good cop/bad cop routine? I was disappointed. I asked what’s up? All he’d say was “your passport caused a red flag to go up on our system, but it’s fine now”.

What the? What does this mean? I scurried through the dreaded x-ray stuff and off I flew to NZ.  I returned a few days later….oblivious to changes at Sydney airport.

Whilst waiting in the passport control queue, a female official came up to me and said I could use the SmartGate line and sail through. Smart idea I thought; beat the queue. Dumb ass move on my part because… you scan your E-passport in a machine and then….you go off to…..the facial recognition technology area…and have your face scanned by these dreaded looking machines. I practically hyper-ventilated.

Despite the early hour of the morning and my foggy brain, I scanned for legal signs to tell me my rights. Typical. No signs. In the absence of these, I said to the grim looking woman “I decline to undergo facial recognition. Where are the signs to tell me what I can or can’t do?”.

I thought she was about to drop dead – either from laughter or shock at my hissy fit. After all, a few sheep incoming passengers were lining up for the facial business, so what’s my problem?  She barked: “well then join that long queue over there and wait your turn”.

Fine with me. Off I trotted. The irony is that I beat the facial recognition suckers to the passport control desk (seems the technology was still asleep in the early hours of the morning). And then my half-baked cat fight went something like this:

Passport control dude (with no smile): “You have an NZ E-passport. Why didn’t you go through the SmartGate?” (I’m thinking: unfortunately, Smart Gate is nowhere near as kick-ass exciting as Star Gate, otherwise I would have gone through it!).

Me: “I didn’t see any sign that said it was compulsory, so I prefer to join this queue”.

Dude: “Well, you have an E-passport”.

Me: silence (declining to state the obvious – duh!)

Dude: “Are you declining facial recognition?”.

Me: “Yes. Seems that it’s not compulsory, so until it is, I don’t wish to have it”.

Dude (with a slight smirk) “Do you have something to hide?” (and proceeds to look more closely at my passport).

Me: “Not at all. I just don’t like the intrusiveness of it and I don’t think the technology is foolproof enough yet” (dumb ass move on my part as I got a mini-lecture on the wonders and accuracy of facial recognition software).

Me: “Well, if it’s not compulsory, then I’d rather not have it. Seems you are using the SmartGate “beat the immigration queue” concept as a way to trap people into having facial recognition. Where are the signs and announcement about what is scanned; why it is scanned; and in what databases the scans are held; and who has access to them?”.

Dude: glare….raised eyebrows….narrowing of eyes.

Me:  return glare but realising I might now get myself hauled off.

Dude: “have a nice day” and hands over my passport.

Me: “you too”, grabbing passport and scurrying off faster than a cheetah running over the African landscape, chasing prey.

Soooooo….I have obviously missed any news about facial recognition technology being introduced to Sydney airport! I do remember something about facial recognition trials some years back but I thought that had bitten the dust. I decided to do a spot of research and found an announcement about SmartGate in a dreary Ministerial press release in July 2009. It’s being rather cleverly described as a “self-processing option for travellers” and a “long-term business solution” (what the?).

It says that SmartGate is proving popular. Yes…well…there were hundreds of people in the loooooooong queues for passport control and about 10 at the SmartGate. Not sure that’s too popular. The couple ahead of me (in their 20s) were clutching NZ E-passports. They were glancing at SmartGate. They turned to me and asked what it was.

Me: “That’s SmartGate. You put the photo page of your E-passport in that machine over there. Then you go get facial recognition”.

Young dude: “What? They scan your face? No way in hell”.

Young girl: “You gotta be kidding. I’m not having that”.

Ah, so Gen Y clearly are very astute and they renewed my belief that not all of us are sheep about to meekly walk into surveillance hell. But I’m wondering when SmartGate will become CompulsoryGate.

September 19, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Airport tyranny

---_0141Dear Canadian reader. Are you having a tough time with the global financial crisis? Have you been chucked out of the job you thought was secure? Don’t despair. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority might be able to use your skills.

If you have the nose of a blood hound, the eyes of a hawk and a suspicious mind, which leads you to think that the world is full of terrorists and that no-one deserves any privacy – well, then you can have a new career as a behaviour detection officer (BDO).

BDOs will be trained and deployed at major airports in Canada from 2010. The BDO will scrutinise weary travellers’ facial expressions and body movements to see if they could be criminals or terrorists. Well, I would most certainly be toast if ever I visit Canada. I usually look nervous courtesy of my uncanny ability to get hauled aside for bomb testing. This has happened to me so often at Sydney airport, I’ve lost count. Apparently, I am a prime target because (I was told by officials when I questioned them) I look “innocent”. I would also be toast because I have the habit of scanning an immigration hall for signs of CCTV and evidence of biometric equipment. A further habit I have is constantly checking to see where my boarding pass is – because I lose things often. This sign of nervousness or agitation could be misread.

BDOs will be trained to spot a passenger with “malicious intentions”, who may have involuntary nervous movements. Let’s hope there will be no religious, ethnic or racial profiling going on.

Really, monitoring peoples’ behaviour in public space is a new level of absurdity in the war against our everyday right to privacy. The BDOs will be in plain clothes watching and lurking in departure lounges and concourses. They will be on the look out for tell-tale signs like foot tapping (well, that’s what I often do at an airport because I am fed up with x-ray machines, long queues and so on). Perhaps I should start getting some botox so my face will be so totally frozen there will be no expressions for the BDO to analyse. People are often nervous at airports for various reasons: a slight fear of flying or waiting with nervous excitement for the family member they haven’t seen in 20 years. Signs of agitation aren’t necessarily because someone is a terrorist or a person with malicious intent.

How much training are these BDOs going to be given (there are BDOs in the US and Israel too). Is it a quick, intensive 4-day workshop and then a bit of field work?  That doesn’t give me any comfort. What education is required? Will BDOs be registered psychologists?? Have they been trained by Paul Ekman – a professor of psychology who has studied micro-expressions for DECADES?

A bunch of scientist dudes had this to say about behaviour detection:

“There is not a consensus within the relevant scientific community” that behavior detection is “ready for use … given the present state of the science (and) inappropriate … responses to the terrorist threat … can do more damage to the fabric of society than terrorists would be likely to do.”  And of course you would know that I would be questioning the potential for violating the reasonable expectation of the privacy of individuals.

Next up, we’ll have CCTV cams spying on us in airplanes. Oh no wait: that’s already been proposed by the European Union! Actually, I have some ideas for airports who are increasingly trying to make our travel experience a frustrating one. And I’m inspired by the film, Minority Report:

  • dispense with the bothersome x-ray machines and the need to strip off belts and shoes by having hidden biometric sensors throughout the airport. These sensors detect heart rate, body temperature, sweat levels and respiration. As you are innocently passing through the departure halls checking out the Duty Free, sensors are watching you.
  • as you check-in for your flight with a self-service machine, there’s a sensor within, detecting your eye movements. Maybe the screen subliminally flashes up photos or words designed to make individuals with something to hide react.
  • as you sit down in a cafe to enjoy a coffee, the seat you are sitting on is equipped with biometric sensors detecting signs of emotional strain (perhaps shifting in your seat too often)
  • you get on the plane, same thing – the seat you’re sitting on is providing feedback of your biometric data to a centrally controlled system and the CCTV cam in the aircraft itself is watching
  • maybe your boarding pass has an RFID chip in it so your whereabouts in the airport terminal is constantly known

This less obtrusive scanning of public space is what I think the future will be and an individual’s right to not be spied on and monitored will be a quaint relic of the past.

August 24, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Treated like terrorists

On January 12 2009, a new online visa waiver programme came into effect in the US. Should you wish to travel to the US, you will now have to apply electronically for travel authorisation. I won’t need to worry as I have vowed never to set foot in the United States again (lovely country that it is) and here is a sobering example, which might make us wonder what the hell is going on in the US.

Put aside the circus that is their biometrics programme (which is why I refuse to enter the country), here’s how you might be treated by US stormtroopers Customs and Border Protection officers should you be brave enough to try visiting the US. This is a real story from a real Australian family.

Picture this – you have an 84-year old father living in Los Angeles. He is ill so you and your family make a mercy dash from Sydney to the US.  You have a valid visa to enter the US. You are a humble taxi driver from a leafy suburb in Sydney’s north. Your wife is an aged-care worker. You take your two sons, aged 8 and 14 years, along with you to see their grandfather, perhaps for the last time.

You get off the flight in LA. You are greeted by friendly, helpful US customs officials. Oh sorry, I was dreaming! This is what really happened:

  • you are hauled aside and detained
  • you are frisked and your luggage is inspected
  • you are hauled off to a hotel with other “detainees”
  • the van you travel in to this hotel has a cage to contain you and your family
  • you arrive at the hotel at 2.30am. You try to get some sleep but it’s hard when armed guards are by your bedside
  • you are woken at 4.30am, hauled back to the airport and shoved on a flight back to Sydney
  • you are an Australian citizen (last time I looked, Australia was one of the US’s staunchest allies, sending our troops to support the US in Iraq. Maybe we need a rethink).
  • the whole frightening incident unfolded over 24 hours

So here’s the multiple choice question. Are you:

(a) a terrorist; or

(b) a paedophile with a long criminal history; or

(c) a humble taxi driver on an emotional dash to see your ailing, elderly father.

If you answered (a) or (b) then perhaps you might expect to be questioned, frisked, grilled, hauled off by US authorities. But if you answered (c), you are correct and you must ask – why is an Australian citizen and his family (remember there are two teenagers involved here) treated in such an appalling manner?

US border protection officers accused this poor man of trying to enter the US illegally (Note to US customs and border protection – not EVERYONE in this world wants to emigrate to the US despite the fact you now have a Prez who can string a sentence together). The man showed them his return tickets worth $6400 for flights back to Australia on February 5.

During detention, the family says minimal food and drink was provided. What appalls me even more is that two teenagers had to suffer through detention in a hotel with armed guards sleeping near them. The man, Mr Fazle Rabbi, was not allowed to see his father despite emotional pleas.

Now, let’s look at the name here: Fazle Rabbi. Mr Rabbi and his family emigrated to Australia from Bangladesh four years ago. Mr Rabbi is an Australian citizen (smart move to emigrate here and not try  the US Mr Rabbi!).  Did US officials refuse this man and his family entry to the US  because of their ethnic heritage? Was he the victim of racial profiling? I’m afraid this is the conclusion one might reach because everything else seems to have been in order: return tickets and visas.

Apparently, the official response has been that the US reserves the right to refuse entry. Hey dudes: did you refund this poor family their wasted $6400?  Did you bother to ring someone – like ASIO and find out if this family were a pack of terrorists in disguise?  Did you bother to find out if the elderly father had a doctor in LA you could ring to verify the story? Did you confuse the Australian passport (presumably Rabbi travelled on one) with that of Afghanistan? Did you take one moment to think you could display some compassion?

Note to the US: if you treat foreign travellers this way, one day that treatment may just be what you experience when you try to enter a foreign country.

Source: SMH

January 28, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

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