Friday, April 30, 2010

Airport Security Sense

Metro has a story (p12) this morning on the end of the airline liquid ban.

Finally, 4 years after the ridiculous bans were introduced to prevent the Movie Plot Threat of binary liquid explosives which explosives experts say could never have worked, we're going to be rid of this stupid and arbitrary restriction on air travel. Well, within 36 months, anyway.

Liquids will now be screened, presumably in a non-invasive way. Perhaps by NMR (magnetically 'pinging' atoms and measuring their vibrations to determine what they are) or IR spectroscopy (shining a light through the bottle and detecting, from which patterns of 'colours' are absorbed, what it contains). These technologies are relatively stable and well-understood, and spectroscopic techniques in particular are a staple of astrophysics - we can't yet go to moons and exoplanets, but we can see light shining through their atmosphere and hence detect the presence of various chemicals.

This is a much better option than simply banning liquids (which can be smuggled in body cavities, "smurfed" across 1oz make-up containers, etc.). It also means that, as well as looking for explosives, security can look for such completely harmless things as dimethylmercury, wolfsbane, potassium cyanide, arsenic, polonium-210 and concentrated nitric acid. Sure, none of those would make the plane go "boom" and fall out of the sky, but they're all lethal in their own ways.

Of course, we will still - in the words of the great Dara Ó Briain - "have to show our genitals to a man in a box before we can go on holiday", so there's a long way to go yet.

- KoW

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