Flight Frustrations -- Are toothpaste bombs really
a big threat?
ATCA: The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance
is a philanthropic expert initiative founded in 2001 to understand and
to address complex global challenges. ATCA conducts collective Socratic
dialogue on global opportunities and threats arising from climate chaos,
radical poverty, organised crime, extremism, informatics, nanotechnology,
robotics, genetics, artificial intelligence and financial systems. Present
membership of ATCA is by invitation only and has over 5,000 distinguished
members: including several from the House of Lords, House of Commons,
EU Parliament, US Congress & Senate, G10's Senior Government officials
and over 1,500 CEOs from financial institutions, scientific corporates
and voluntary organisations as well as over 750 Professors from academic
centres of excellence worldwide.
The views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily
representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. Please do not forward
or use the material circulated without permission and full attribution.
London, UK - 23 August 2006, 16:51 GMT - Response:
Flight Frustrations -- Are toothpaste bombs really a big threat? Prof Peter
[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not
necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts
collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]
We are grateful to Prof Peter Cochrane for his response to ATCA
in the wake of ongoing UK/US airport and airline security restrictions,
"Flight frustrations: Are toothpaste bombs really a big threat?"
from Stansted Airport, England, amid a sea of confused and tired humanity
via a commercial wi-fi service.
Prof Peter Cochrane is co-founder of ConceptLabs, where he acts as a mentor
advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is
the former CTO and Head of Research at British Telecom (BT). His career in
telecoms and engineering spans 38 years. He was Head of BT Research from 1993-99.
In 1999 he was appointed Chief Technologist. In November 2000, Peter left
BT to join his own start-up company - ConceptLabs - which he had founded with
a group out of Apple Computers in 1998 at Campbell, California, in Silicon
Valley. He is a Fellow of the IEE, IEEE, Royal Academy of Engineering, and
a Member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He has published and lectured
widely on technology and the implications of IT and was awarded an OBE in
1999 for his contribution to international communications, the IEEE Millennium
Medal in 2000 and The City & Guilds Prince Philip Medal in 2001. He was
the Collier Chair for The Public Understanding of Science & Technology
at The University of Bristol from 1999 to 2000. He holds a number of prominent
posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's
first Professor for the public Understanding of Science and Technology. He
Dear DK and Colleagues
On 9/10  I flew out of Boston on a flight that was hijacked the next
day and on 7/7  I had passed through several of the bombsites only hours
before. So what of 8/10 ? Thankfully, and by sheer luck, I have not
been flying over the past 10 days, nor am I flying over the next 10! So I
missed the latest big bombing attempt and the ensuing chaos at Gatwick, Heathrow
and Stansted airports.
Pity the poor souls stood in line for four or five hours (in the rain) not
knowing if they were actually going to fly. Pity the baggage handlers, security
staff, police, aircrews and airlines trying to cope with the high state of
emergency. And all this was exacerbated by the inadequate facilities of airports
that normally operate at well over 100 per cent of their full design capacity.
By and large, people stayed calm, cool, collected and tolerant of the situation
for the first two or three days but after four or five patience was wearing
thin. Incomprehensible limitations and rulings on checked baggage and carry-ons
just fuelled irritation upon irritation.
After 9/11 it took weeks for normality to return. After 7/7 normality was
in evidence the next day. But hey, the UK population has had decades of training
on how to respond to terrorists provided by the IRA and their ilk. These incidents
taught us how to assess the reality of risk through real events and facts
instead of panicked media reports.
So what went wrong on 8/10? Unless we get on the inside of the security community
I suspect we will never know. But I would guess the actual size and scale
of the attack was bigger, or perceived to be bigger, than we have seen reported
For sure the reaction of the government and its servants was fast, conclusive
and very effective indeed in the initial phase of preventing a flying bomb
escaping the UK. It was also effective in identifying and rounding up suspects.
We can only assume there was a lingering uncertainty and reasonable doubt
that prevented an early relaxation of the state of alert.
But everyone is prompted to ask the obvious -- could more have been done to
rapidly restore normal travel service? Well, possibly!
Here are my thoughts on the topic...
First, the use of disparate fluids, powders or other materials to build explosive
devices really is chemistry 101 and shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.
Second, detecting inflammable and explosive materials in isolation, combination
or component parts is relatively easy to do and all the technology is available.
But then again so is common sense, and it is easy to train security screeners
to look out for and identify such potential threats. On the other hand, stopping
pilots taking their toothpaste and lip salve on board seems a little bit irrational
and over the top!
But no matter how much technology is deployed and how well the screeners are
trained, something and/or someone will slip through eventually - nothing is
foolproof. This is especially true if all travellers are treated as presenting
the same potential threat level.
In engineering terms what is required is a matched filter -- and in this case
we actually know in advance what we are looking for. In social terms it is
called shelving political correctness and applying common sense! Just bring
together everyone's passport, social, travel, work, health records (and more)
and it quickly becomes obvious which individuals might pose a serious threat
and those unlikely to be so. That way time money and effort can be expended
in the right areas and the probability of success is magnified enormously.
And make no mistake we are dealing with probability here!
We have all forms of biometrics to help identify individuals -- facial, hand,
eye, fingerprint and voice recognition, for starters. Then there are many
others such as the way we walk, type, mannerisms, choice of clothing and so
on, all of which can often be recognised by machines to a higher degree of
accuracy than humans.
I think we can safely assume that the police and security service have a list
of hot suspects who should be rendered readily identifiable at all airports.
Again straightforward electronic solutions are possible and available here
We should also include on our list all known family, friends and associates
of all the hot suspects. These can be identified with ease and afforded extra
attention from the point they book a ticket until they arrive at the airport.
In short we need to have our electronic guard up at all times and make the
human shield and restrictions variable with the threat level.
All of this will require investment, a lot of investment. It will also dictate
far more check-in lines, security tracks, trained people and physical space
for covert observation by people and machines. Snag is, the current UK airport
building stock, like the number of runways and access road infrastructure,
are woefully inadequate and cannot be fixed quickly. A building and transformation
programme initiated today would take at lease five years to impact the present
problems, and frankly it is unlikely to ever happen! So the present travel
nightmare will most likely continue for a very long time.
Right now flying out of the UK on business looks to be impossibly time inefficient
and expensive. No professional traveller checks a bag into the hold and some
airlines are not even allowing laptops in the cabin! Flying time is valuable
working time and not having a laptop available is a major frustration for
many professionals. The next frustration is waiting for your bag at the end
destination and then finding all the cabs have been taken by those ahead of
you - even more valuable time wasted. But worse, a lot of flying means your
bag will be lost and a multi-hop trip means it will never catch up with you!
Luckily I am not flying for another couple of weeks and if the present UK
airport baggage constraints persist I may have to fly Norwich to Schiphol,
or take the Chunnel to Paris. I just cannot afford the current levels of wasted
time before and during a flight just because UK BAA can't get its act together.
Interestingly, the time difference introduced by such a dog-leg is minimal
given the present UK airport chaos. But even better, the seat prices are considerably
cheaper out of continental airports.
This last security incident looks as though it may have changed my travel
We look forward to your further thoughts, observations and views. Thank you.
For and on behalf of DK Matai, Chairman, Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance
ATCA: The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance
is a philanthropic expert initiative founded in 2001 to understand and to
address complex global challenges. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue
on global opportunities and threats arising from climate chaos, radical poverty,
organised crime, extremism, informatics, nanotechnology, robotics, genetics,
artificial intelligence and financial systems. Present membership of ATCA
is by invitation only and has over 5,000 distinguished members: including
several from the House of Lords, House of Commons, EU Parliament, US Congress
& Senate, G10's Senior Government officials and over 1,500 CEOs from financial
institutions, scientific corporates and voluntary organisations as well as
over 750 Professors from academic centres of excellence worldwide.
The views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative
of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. Please do not forward or use the material
circulated without permission and full attribution.
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