Why you can smuggle practically anything onboard in your hand luggage
We’re all familiar with the tedious ritual of airport security: stand in a line to show identification and ticket, then take off belt, shoes, remove all items from all pockets and stand in another line to place one’s hand luggage on a conveyor belt so it can be passed through an X-ray machine, then stand in line to pass through a body-scanner, then stand in line to collect one’s hand luggage, then restore shoes, belt, and pocket items to their proper places.
This is, we’re earnestly informed, to ensure that incidents such as 9/11 can never recur. Except if the would-be terrorists co-opt one of the ground personnel and bypass all the elaborate security theater that passengers are subjected to. But we won’t talk about this gaping security hole so there’s no need to worry.
It is legitimate to wonder, however, what all the security theater actually accomplishes aside from giving most travelers a comforting notion that someone is doing their best to ensure their safety. But just as the onboard flight safety briefing is almost entirely spurious while real safety measures are left undone, is it possible that all the X-raying and scanning is likewise ineffectual?
Officially, all the security measures present at your typical airport are highly effective. But officially the Boeing 737-Max was a perfectly safe aircraft. And officially Russia didn’t invade Ukraine in 2014. And officially Brexit was a quick and easy success story.
In reality, however, life is often very different from the official story and it’s no different with airport security. When we look at the various elements that comprise the security chain we can see multiple points of failure, the most evident of which are the under-paid and over-tired humans who perform the core tasks.
Studies have repeatedly shown that when people stare at screens they become rapidly less competent at identifying important features. On average perception acuity reaches inadequate levels within twenty to forty minutes. But airport security personnel will watch their screens for up to two hours at a time, which means that more than 80% of their shift can pass in a blur.
But that’s the best part of the story. The more troubling part is that we humans have brains that struggle to make sense of the world around us. We evolved to cope with very different environments from those fashioned by modern technologies. Far from being the impersonal and highly accurate video cameras of trash TV and movie fiction, our brains are exceptionally fallible and biased interpreters of the outside world. Our brains look for familiar patterns and we often impose them even when no pattern in fact exists. For as long as we’ve been human we’ve looked at stars and clouds and superimposed upon them shapes conjured up by our pattern-seeking brains. When we look at the world around us we filter based on what we expect to see.
That’s why, when psychologists test human perception, we find over and over that we see what we expect to see and not what is really happening. In one classic example, test subjects are shown a video and then are asked to describe what they’ve just seen. Even though there are no obstructions to viewing and even though the video clip was played merely seconds earlier, very few people are able to describe with any accuracy whatsoever the events of the 5-second clip. A typical response may be, “An old woman was walking down the street, then a young black man pushed her over and grabbed her handbag and ran off.”
Unfortunately, the video clip actually depicted a middle-aged white man forcing the old woman out of the way of a falling ladder and then remaining with her as the ladder struck the ground just where she would have been standing. Similarly, when shown a clip of two men transporting a large pane of glass from truck to doorway, very few people consciously notice the third man in a gorilla suit appear and disappear as the two men are carefully carrying the large glass pane.
In such tests of visual perception even trained personnel such as police officers do no better than ordinary people, making a complete mockery of the idea that police testimony should carry more weight than that of other witnesses.
We see what we expect to see and we react as we habitually react. That’s why when an aircraft is evacuated, most people stand up and open the overhead bins to retrieve their luggage despite all the safety briefings and instructions to the contrary. People see and do what they typically see and do. And this makes life very easy for those who want to smuggle prohibited items on board.
Let’s think about what most airport security personnel do every day of their working lives.
“Sorry madam, you can’t take that bottle of water through this checkpoint.”
“Sorry sir, you can’t keep that sandwich in your carry-on bag.”
“Excuse me, madam, we’ve found a pair of nail scissors in your luggage and we’ll have to confiscate them.”
“No sir, you can’t keep that. The size limit for aftershave is 100ml.”
These kinds of interventions comprise 99.999% of the typical day, every day, for every airport security person at every major airport around the world. Airport security personnel are extremely adept at identifying typical items that are prohibited in the name of preventing terrorism. It’s literally what they do all day, every day. So when a security person is gazing at the X-ray screen they’re looking for what they expect to see: scissors, bottles of liquid, nail files, and food items.
Some time ago, back when people were permitted to interact with each other without someone shouting hysterically about support bubbles and social distancing and self-isolation, I had a conversation with some friends about airport security. We all had amusing anecdotes.
Starting with myself, I recalled how back in the days when body-scanners were simply metal detectors I’d accidentally had a small knife in the inside pocket of the jacket I’d hurriedly grabbed on my way out of the house at 04.00 that morning. The jacket was one I often wore when going out into the woods and I’d completely forgotten about the small knife. But as I passed through the metal detector and the alert noise sounded, I belatedly remembered. Fortunately, in my tired state I’d also forgotten to remove my car and house keys from my pants pocket. As the security official patted me down, he quickly found the keys. I removed them, placed them in the proffered plastic tray, and then retrieved them after they’d been passed through the X-ray machine.
Because the security person was expecting to find a belt buckle or some keys, locating my keys confirmed his mental bias. I later dumped the knife in a trash bin before boarding my flight.
“That’s nothing,” one of my friends exclaimed. “I went through airport security with a bong and a bag of weed. But I also had a half-eaten sandwich in my handbag, so they made me take it out and throw it away. The bong was right by the sandwich but they just seemed not to see it at all.”
“My girlfriend had a jar of mayonnaise confiscated, but they weren’t interested in the suspicious bag of white powder that was right beside the jar. Now, the powder was only L-Theanine, but they couldn’t have known that. She said it was like the bag of powder was invisible to them.”
“I can beat that,” another friend said. “You know I’m a firearms instructor, right? So I was in an Eastern European country giving a two-day handgun course. I flew there direct on an overnight flight, did the two days training, then I flew to Greece to give an unarmed combat class, then I flew to France to give another unarmed combat class. Then I had to fly back to the Eastern European country to give another two-day handgun class. As I went through airport security at Charles de Gaulle they flagged my bag and did a hand search while I stood there. To my horror I saw there was a Glock 19 and three loaded magazines in the side-pouch of my carry-on bag. I’d not touched the side-pouch since leaving the Eastern European country. My assistant had packed everything and handed the bag to me as I left for the airport and my schedule had been so tight that all I’d done was pull a change of clothes from the main compartment. I had visions of being slammed to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged off to be interrogated by anti-terrorism officers. But the reason they’d pulled my bag off the conveyor was because they’d seen in the X-ray scanner the half-empty bottle of water I’d shoved in there and forgotten about. They were super proud of making a big show of extracting the bottle and telling me firmly that it was forbidden to take dangerous items through security. And all the time the Glock was perfectly visible right in front of us. But after they were finished with the lecture about the water bottle they let me zip up the side-pouch and walk away with the bag, with the loaded Glock and spare magazines still inside. So basically I passed through security checkpoints in that Eastern European country, then Athens, and then Paris. And nobody ever saw the Glock even though it went through the X-ray scanners each and every flight.”
These are obviously anecdotes. Pass through security just as a new operator has come on shift and there’s a higher probability that a grenade, knife, or handgun would be seen as it goes through the X-ray machine. Try smuggling drugs in your checked luggage and there’s a very good probability that a sniffer dog will detect your contraband. But if you want to carry lethal weapons on board a commercial flight, chances are you’ll get away with it.
A couple of years ago a US citizen was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport when security staff discovered a semi-automatic handgun in his carry-on baggage. He’d arrived in London earlier in the day and was taking a connecting flight to a provincial British city. As his hand luggage passed through the X-ray scanner an alert operator saw the gun and so the US citizen’s journey was brought to an immediate halt.
Obviously this was a triumph for British airport security.
Except for the fact that it turned out the man had been smuggling guns into the UK for the previous fourteen years. At first he’d carefully disassembled each weapon and placed parts in different bags. But as trip after trip passed without incident he grew insouciant, no longer bothering to disassemble the guns he was illegally transporting in his carry-on bags. The Metropolitan Police later estimated that he’d brought in over 220 handguns over the years, connecting to regional flights on at least half of all his trips. Which meant that over 100 guns had gone through X-ray machines, been seen (but not seen consciously) by operators, and passed through without incident.
Meanwhile, UKSF continue to test UK airport security as they’ve been doing for the last fifty years, and invariably they are able to smuggle guns, grenades, knives, and other lethal weapons through all the checkpoints without any difficulty at all. Often this is because they intentionally use distractions such as water bottles and sandwiches, knowing that these are the items the security personnel are expecting to see.
In the USA, where handguns are as common as donuts, the Transport Security Agency (TSA) proudly announces every year its haul of confiscated weaponry. In 2018 the TSA proudly announced it had seized 4,000 handguns over the course of the preceding year. Which would be lovely were it not for the fact that even the TSA’s own estimates suggest that ten times that number passed through security without being detected.
Eventually artificial intelligence will improve the state of airport security. Scanners connected to pattern-recognition computer programs will replace fallible human operators and it will become more difficult to pass weapons through scanners undetected. Until then, despite all the security theater every airport presents, it will continue to be a very porous set of inconveniences indeed.
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