DUBAI // A raft of measures are being implemented to protect the nation's airports, and controversial full-body scanners have not been ruled out, security officials said yesterday.
The machines must be modified to protect privacy and health, and should be used only if there is reasonable suspicion about a passenger, the head of security for Dubai's airports told the Border Control Airport and Seaport Security conference.
"If we implement them in this part of the world there are some issues regarding sensitivity, human safety and personal privacy," said Brigadier Pilot Ahmad bin Thani, the director general of the Department of Airports Security in Dubai Police.
"What that system is doing is giving the screeners the passenger's image without anything. He is naked."
Mr bin Thani advised waiting to see what measures manufacturers took to make the scanners safer and to conceal parts of the body. No decision either way has been made by federal authorities, he added.
The conference heard details of a security shield to protect airports, with some measures already in place, some in the pipeline and others being considered. They include inspection of all cargo at every airport, face-recognition technology, scanning of hand baggage for suspicious weight changes, examination of dust particles for traces of explosives, and an annual upgrade of security systems.
However, it is the possibility of full-body scanners that will spark debate. Controversy over the machines has increased in the past two months, particularly in the US. Opponents there say they are intrusive and open to abuse, and the alternative "pat-down" searches border on sexual harassment.
Some US officials say the measures are necessary to prevent a recurrence of events such as last year's Christmas Eve attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit using a bomb hidden in underwear.
Full-body scanners are not yet a requirement by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and Mr bin Thani said he was not personally convinced of their value.
"The decision is not with me personally, but from my information they have negative effects on the traveller in terms of health, privacy, and delaying movement," he said, and they should be used only in suspicious cases.
"You can't implement that system for all passengers, 50 million a year. No way," he said.
The conference also heard that all UAE airports now inspect every inbound cargo shipment for explosives, after parcel bombs from Yemen were found in Dubai and England.
And intelligence sharing emerged as vital to protecting airport security. An intelligence tip from Saudi Arabia was the key to uncovering the Yemen cargo bomb plot.
“Arab countries have always had their political differences but there is one thing they agree on, and that’s their internal security,” said Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, organisers of the conference, which ends today.
“The most successful meetings on the level of the Arab League are those of the interior ministers.”
Officials outlined measures to protect airports. “All cargo must go through 100 per cent screening,” said Khaled al Mazrouei, the chairman of the Gulf Airport Services Association and general manager of Fujairah Airport. This has been introduced nationwide, although Mr bin Thani said Dubai had it in place before the bomb plots were uncovered.
Cargo is scanned by X-ray, with large consignments split up and examined separately to make it easier to detect suspicious material.
A pilot scheme using face-recognition technology at Abu Dhabi International Airport may be expanded to include every airport after a Ministry of Interior review of the project.
Since 2002, about 250,000 people have tried to enter the country using forged documents, the Ministry of Interior said at the conference.
Electronic scanners that detect changes in the weight of baggage taken on board planes are also under consideration by the UAE.
“We study what the person who goes on the plane is carrying and what he is carrying when he leaves. The machine can detect the weight as well as the contents of the bag,” Dr al Mazrouei said.
Machines will also scan dust particles inside cargo that can provide signature traces of explosives.
The UAE is studying a proposal that would certify certain companies specialising in cargo security to scan cargo packages in warehouses before they go to airports, a system that has been implemented in Saudi Arabia and relieves pressure on airports.
Dr al Mazrouei also called for a Gulf-wide system to train airport security staff.
Officials spoke of the lessons of the Yemen cargo bomb plots, which they said illustrated the importance of scanning cargo but also highlighted the strength of security measures in the UAE’s airports.
“The main lesson is that you have to make sure that all cargo that goes on cargo as well as passenger flights should be screened,” said Dr al Mazrouei.
“Number two is the intelligence on where this cargo is coming from,” he added.
Concerns over border security range from the trafficking of illicit drugs and counterfeit items to illegal immigration, terrorism and the smuggling of explosives.
The new development is that international criminals are devising smarter ways to smuggle explosives and material, said Mr Kahwaji.
“It’s an ongoing challenge for all these agencies to stay ready and keep up to date on what’s out there to face the challenges,” he said.
The UAE is a major transit hub for passengers and the re-export of goods. It deals with cargo regardless of origin, but places extra emphasis on security if it gets warnings from airlines or intelligence agencies about threats to particular aircraft, officials said.
“All the airports in the UAE have a plan to upgrade their systems yearly,” said Mr bin Thani. “The cargo field will be one of these.”
Explosive detectors will be one of the technologies the UAE invests more in.
A chain of security procedures including scanning and sniffer dogs are in place for cargo, he added.
Ways to detect passengers carrying PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), a material used in making explosives, will also be implemented soon, he said.