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Technology vs. Terrorism: Airline Safety in Innocent Passenger Warfare

Aug 13, 2014

With airline tragedies responsible for more than 700 global deaths in the past four months alone, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is turning to a team of both personnel and state-of-the-art technology to tackle the issue and amp up security at airports worldwide. But given that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 went down from a surprise missile attack from what is believed to be Ukrainian or rebel forces, Air Algerie Flight 5017 supposedly crashed due to bad weather, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is still nowhere to be found and TransAsia Flight GE222 fell as the result of an oncoming typhoon, skeptics are starting to wonder if the progress we have made in technology thus far is even worth the effort. And considering that public knowledge of these developments are anything but “mum” – allowing one 62 year-old San Jose resident to successfully sneak onto six different domestic flights without purchasing a single ticket – common sense begets an even greater question: When it comes to airline security, is technology beginning to work against us?

Crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17The recent missile brigade launched against Malaysia Airlines MH17 is the latest in a nearly 100-year-long history of airline attacks; one that has undergone a significant transformation from the first-ever hijacking in 1931 in Arequipa, Peru. Fast-forward 70 years there was the notorious shoe bomb in 2001, the ink cartridge bomb on a cargo plane in 2010 – and who could ever forget? – the catastrophic September 11th attack on the World Trade Center back in 2001, where the transportation itself became the weapon of choice.

Today, technology has taken us so far that some experts believe missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 might have been the result of the first cyber-hijacking of an aircraft the world has ever seen. What does that mean exactly? British anti-terrorist expert and former Home office scientific advisor, Dr. Sally Leivesley, believes there is evidence to support the fact that tech-savvy terrorists could have used radio signals from their mobile devices to impact the plane’s flight management system and change its speed, altitude and even direction. “Hackers could have used a mobile phone to send a signal to a preset piece of malware in the computer that initiated a set of instructions,” Dr. Leivesley said. Given that these same mobile phones are the latest technological advancements responsible for enhancing the passenger in-flight experience, irony is at play. These methods of attack have become as creative as they are unimaginable, and some security experts believe the global shift towards a reliance on technology is partly to blame.

LOCKERBIE BOMBINGWhile the security experts above may have a point about airport technology and public knowledge – meaning the more terrorists know about TSA defense mechanisms, the easier they can get around them – they are forgetting the impetus behind the initial debate: These extremists keep coming up with new ways to sidestep technology because technology keeps finding ways to best them.

  • 1972: When a bomb was found on a plane from JFK to LAX 12 minutes before it was expected to detonate, the FAA placed metal detectors in all U.S. airports by January 1973.
  • 1988: When a bomb hidden in a cassette player destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, U.S. carriers at European and Middle Eastern airports added mandatory X-ray scanners for all U.S.-bound baggage by the end of that year.
  • 2001: When the famous “shoe bomb” attempt stunned the world, the U.S. government required X-ray shoe-scanning at all national airports in 2006.
  • 2006: When terrorists attempted to blow up an aircraft flying from the U.K. to the U.S. with liquid explosives hidden in carry-on bags, high volumes of liquid were banned from all flights in the United States. Further to this, by 2010, more than 500 Advanced Imaging technology units were deployed to airports nationwide to detect metallic and non-metallic threats on passengers, like weapons, liquids, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing – units we still use today.

The airport security-technology story is a timeless tale of sibling rivalry. Whether proactive or reactive, developers and rule-breakers are continuously finding more ways to sidestep the other – is there any limit to how far technology will prevail?

You tell us.

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