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Updated: March 15, 2011 17:29 IST

U.S. working on tech that will reduce need for physical searches

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A TSA officer pats down a traveler as he works his way through security at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota. File Photo.
AP A TSA officer pats down a traveler as he works his way through security at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota. File Photo.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano today said her department is working on technologies for airport security that will reduce the need for physical searches of passengers and even allow them to “keep their shoes” on during security checks in future.

Napolitano said the U.S. processes two million passengers a day through its 370 airports and the Department of Homeland Security is “testing” a range of new technologies for an “integrated checkpoint of tomorrow” that will make the passenger experience quicker and less intrusive while still maintaining security.

“Our overall goal is to have an integrated checkpoint that allows passengers to keep on their shoes, reduces the need for physical searches and maximises the likelihood that we will prevent another aviation attack,” she said at a speech here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Speaking to students and professors, Napolitano said security officials don’t ask passengers “to take off your shoes and remove your laptops” for “amusement.”

Based on recent attempted attacks and the latest intelligence, aviation continues to be a preferred target of terrorists who seek to attack the U.S., she said, adding that technology can help the U.S. be ahead of its “adversaries“.

Extremists “continually alter their tactics” — from using liquid explosives to the non-metallic explosive PETN, used in both the attempted bombings of a U.S. bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and in cargo planes out of Yemen last October.

“We also must look ahead to potential future threats, and how technology can help us leap ahead of them.”

Besides improving its technological capabilities, the federal agency hopes to rely more on human and behavioural expertise to identify would-be terrorists.

“We are exploring the human and behavioural dimension to gain a better understanding of behavioural indicators of danger,” she said.

Napolitano said a less intrusive and quicker airport screening process would take some time to implement.

A screening that allows passengers to keep their shoes on but takes 20 minutes per person will not work given the number of passengers that cross American airports everyday.

“To imagine, design, test, procure and eventually deploy the checkpoint of tomorrow we need new kinds of expertise,” including managerial and operational expertise, she said.

“As we plan for the technology we will need 5, 10, 20 years down the line, we need the scientific and engineering expertise to turn this idea into a reality.”

She pointed out that another challenge that the department faces is to sift through tons of intelligence data that it receives everyday, identify relevant information and act on it in “real time“.

The National Counterterrorism Centre’s 24-hour Operations Centre receives 8,000-10,000 pieces of counterterrorist information daily.

Napolitano said new technology should also protect privacy and civil liberties.

Some extremists are al Qaeda-style terrorists, while some extremists are home-grown, “their radicalisation often accelerated by what they read and watch online.”

“We must take care not to focus on any single group... any one country, religion, or ethnicity. There is no one, definitive profile of a terrorist.”

Earlier in the day, Napolitano also met Massachusetts public transit officials and urged the public to report anything suspicious they might see while using public transport as part of the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign.

The programme is funded by a million dollar grant from the Department of Homeland Security and asks people to report to the police suspicious activity or unattended package.

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