An aviation security conundrum: Sniff my junk?

The 2010 Holiday season had newspaper pages and cable newscasts full of concern over our safety: Printer cartridges with explosives in cargo planes, package bombs at embassies, and continued concern over suicide bombers smuggling explosives onto passenger planes on their person. The last example gave rise to privacy debates over backscatter scanners logging images of citizens in government databases, and very thorough physical pat downs.

Last year I wrote an article comparing the effectiveness of high-tech explosives detection solutions with the relatively low-tech approach of using canines. There really is no argument that in fact, when K-9s are well-trained, well-handled and well-maintained, they are one of the best methods for locating explosive contraband. Many people are aware of their use in airports through the TSA as well as state and local law enforcement detailed to the airports around the country. However in this article I want to suggest another use.

In prisons all over the country, dogs are used as part of the layered security system to detect the illegal smuggling of contraband into prisons. Dogs are trained to sniff visitors to be sure they are not carrying illegal drugs, cigarettes, cell phones, and the like into prisons.

That’s right, they sniff people.

This is not done in law enforcement outside of prisons due to 4th Amendment case law. I would argue that security measures in airports are already significantly invasive. While backscatter scanners and pat downs are continually criticized for going “too far” in the trade-off between security and personal liberty, I think we should have a discussion about expanding the use of K-9s in airway and railway transit policing. At airports at present, K-9s are used only for screening cargo going onto cargo planes. I think they should be part of a layered approach that needs to be significantly increased — they could easily be used for screening passengers getting onto flights.

There will be objections. Some people are afraid of dogs, and some will have religious objections to being sniffed by a dog. I think we can design a process where dog teams are used to scan people through a porous barrier at which people are waiting in line. Let’s remember that dogs already scan for contraband agricultural items and drugs in baggage claim areas.

If explosives are hidden on a person — say in a vest or waist belt under clothes — the dog is extremely capable of sourcing this based on the volatile odor emanating from the explosives. Further, if the explosives were hidden in a body cavity, the K-9 has the best chance of identifying this compared to any other technology we have at our disposal. I won’t explain the details on why that’s the case.

Compared to the backscatter technology — which is extremely expensive — canines could more quickly and less invasively provide much the same service in identifying explosives. I think it is a debate worth having. Americans constantly put their faith in high technology, but one could argue that this low-tech solution is not only more cost effective — although it is cheaper — but because it can be more widely employed it is simply more effective overall. In my opinion, we would need to have private companies provide some of this service, and as I have argued before, we need to look more to private-public partnerships in the provision of security.

We use contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide canine explosives detection at many of the military bases there. The government sets the standards for the certification of the canines, and the private companies provide the manpower, so there is already precedent. We must talk about improving our detection capabilities, while still balancing security with our personal liberty.