What is security? And do we need to redefine it? An op-ed piece I wrote for The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle two years ago is reproduced below. The takeaways from the piece holds good even today
Here is a lesson in security relativity: Passing through New York’s JFK international airport en route to Mexico City recently, I went through two index fingerprints, an iris scan, was asked to remove my shoes, jacket, belt and gold bangles. My laptop was not inside a ‘checkpoint-friendly bag’, so I had to take it out, and place it on a separate tray, like the cell phone. I had locked my checked-in baggage at Delhi, but since the lock was not one that had been approved by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), my luggage arrived in Mexico, my final destination, unlocked. Watching the airport screeners in action, I am convinced that mine was not an exceptional experience, though it was elaborate, time-consuming and rigorous.
I passed through Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport barely a fortnight after the devastating 26 November terror attacks on the metropolis. The city was still reeling from the savagery it had faced, but after my JFK experience., the security drill in the country’s busiest international airports was an eye-opener. Sure enough, there were the usual screening rituals prevalent during “high alerts”. But there were telling differences between the two departure sections. At Mumbai, I strolled through the security checkpoints in my corduroy jacket, heeled shoes, a packet of bagel crisps in my hands, with no questions asked. No one asked me to take out metallic objects from my bag and place them in a separate tray or take off my shoes. The bangles stayed on my wrists, and the laptop inside its case.
Some would call this a “smooth passage”. In another day, another time, I would have been elated. But in these terror-charged times, I am not so sure.
As a flier, what concerns me is the different airport security standards around the globe. Is the TSA, formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and part of the US Department of Homeland Security, invasive? Or do Indian airports need to do better?
The safety vs. convenience trade-off makes a great story. In the Vienna international airport one summer afternoon this year, a man from Niger was unwilling to discard the Jean Paul Gaultier cologne in his hand baggage, as requested by airport security, and emptied the contents on his suit, all of it, right there. Those of us behind him in the queue marvelled at his chutzpah. .
Since the European Union introduced new regulations for carry-on luggage, scenes like this have been repeated time and again. But the derring-do and either-or approach is a slippery slope that could trap us in an unwinnable game.
By all accounts, aviation security around the world is more stringent than ever before. After 9/11, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)—a 188-nation body that was founded in 1947—asked its members to meet higher standards. The operative word is “asked” since the organization gives all nations “complete and exclusive sovereignty” over their airspace, and has no real enforcement power. Among other things, ICAO called for 100 per cent passenger and baggage screening, aircraft searches prior to takeoff, restricted access to cockpits and secure areas of airports, and improved personnel training.
As part of these efforts, ICAO started auditing countries’ security programmes.. This is a tremendous step forward, but the results are confidential between ICAO and the audited countries—if the countries want it that way—so the flying public may not know whether a given nation is meeting all ICAO-prescribed guidelines.
Aviation security norms are also constantly changing. In the beginning, the focus was on sharp objects. Then, a Brit named Richard Reid wore his explosive sneakers past guards at Charles de Gaulle and shoes lost their harmless reputation.
So where do we draw the line?
Sriram Iyenger, a non-resident Indian who frequently shuttles between the United States and India and a co-passenger in the non-stop flight from New York to Mumbai says he does not mind the security checks at JFK “since tighter security will ensure there is no room for slippage of threats”. Iyenger thinks Indian Airports should emulate the standards of JFK and other US airports and adopt a TSA kind of system.
78 year-old B Chatterjee, a retiree and avid traveller from Kolkata, on the other hand, is worried that increasingly stringent security structures at airports will rob wanderlust of its sheen.
Recent terror attacks have made security the top most issue in India. The Ministry of Civil Aviation is reportedly planning to install a biometric identification system to secure entry into Indian airports. Fingerprinting, face recognition and iris testing would become the way of identifying passengers as well as the airport staff.
But technology alone will not enhance security. Several other issues need to be addressed alongside.
Firstly, if new systems are installed, they need to be applied without exceptions. Security checks are not demeaning, and need to be demystified. In other words, it should not matter if you are a ‘Very Important Person’ or a totally ordinary one. Rules lose their sanctity unless they are applicable universally and equitably.
Secondly, rules will be tough to implement without staff training, sensitization and the cooperation of the flying public. In other words, passengers need to know the reasons behind the apparently unreasonable security strictures. The TSA website, for example, has the following section:” Why? The Reasons Behind TSA Security”. It highlights the three security procedures that raise questions for many passengers are: Why do I have to take off my shoes? Why do I have to put my three ounce liquids in a zip-top plastic bag? Why do I have to show ID? Videos uploaded on the site provide answers to each of these questions. The aim is to make passengers understand the “why” of security so that they have an easier time getting through the checkpoint.
And finally, investments in aviation security have to be backed by commensurate investments in intelligence in order to be meaningful.
Patralekha Chatterjee is a writer, photographer and avid traveller. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org