The news cycles, talking heads and many elected officials seem to be in a bit of a tizzy over the images created Whole Body Imaging (WBI) systems. Current technology produces a de-identified raw data image of the human form with items of concern as they appear. The technology will only be of value, however, if it is deployed and used to its maximum capability. A large part of this capability is the deterrence factor. When screening can reveal everything a potential terrorist has concealed on-body or in-baggage, would-be attackers will move on to some different venue. Deterrence requires technologies (and technology operators) that work flawlessly and in real time, and for this reason, we need to deploy WBI today for a greater benefit tomorrow.

There are currently two operable systems: Backscatter Passenger Imaging, which uses low intensity X-ray technology to show items in pockets or concealed on the person; and Millimeter Wave Technology, which projects radio frequency energy over the passenger’s body creating a 3-D image and revealing the smallest concealed item.

Technology adapts rapidly and can prevent potentially embarrassing situations with undressed human forms. Solutions to enhance security through the use of WBI will become more effective when the data is synthesized to produce a depiction of the entire situation on a generic form, enabling real-time interpretation without the distraction of raw data. These diagrams will have icons generated by algorithms detecting suspect items; however, until WBI is deployed on a large scale, there will not be the necessary critical mass to address the social issues and derive the economy of scale. From this, technological solutions to public concerns will be established and the machines will be produced at more affordable prices.

If we take a moment to consider the efficacy of WBI and the invested public and private funds, we are likely to witness a clear example of Moore’s law, which precisely describes a driving force of technological and social change in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The capabilities of digital electronic devices processing speed, sensors, and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras are all improving at (roughly) exponential rates. This has dramatically increased the usefulness of digital electronics in nearly every segment of the world economy.

All one needs to do is look at the History Channel for WWII stories on the secret new system – RADAR. Compare the raw data display of the radar oscilloscope with today’s synthesized weather depiction on the evening news; you would be hard-pressed to recognize it as the same basic system. The WBI screeners are now working with truly rudimentary raw data, compared to what they will be working with in a short time. When WBI is deployed for use in real-time by a wide array of screeners, it will need the finest synthetic depiction engineers can develop to keep the system functioning and the lines moving.

This is the twenty-first century, and technology is constantly accelerating. Look back just a few years at the then new system of Google Earth and compare it with the infinite number of applications available on that depiction using icons to enable the human brain to absorb information in real-time. A pilot operating an F-16, F-18, F-22 does not look at the raw data of analog instruments with dials and gauges, nor do they use an oscilloscope to interpret their multi-sensor and targeting suite. Rather, they use a synthetic depiction with clearly defined icons. They have the latest in visualization tools to enable real-time human interpretation. This is the same technology advancement that will become the standard for WBI. The human form will be some type of avatar or line diagram with icons depicting the analysis of the system on various objects encountered.

I have worked on building common operating pictures with massive amounts of data incorporated and depicted. Data, technology and intelligence analysis does not become a solution until such time as the information can be conveyed to the human decision maker in near real-time and visualization greatly expedites the process and comprehension. Moore’s law will kick in here shortly, and WBI will become yet another ubiquitous aspect of air travel. Our adversaries will learn of our screening technology, and they will have to devise new avenues to pursue. This will give us time to detect them and offer greater incentives to discontinue their behavior.

  • Jean Morris

    Hi Kevin. I think that the non-pc selection of young middle-eastern men is a necessary prelude to your proposal.

    • Thanks for your comment Jean and I appreciate your thoughts, however there are a couple of points which need to be considered. First, what you propose is known as profiling based on racial and ethnic appearance. This has been held to be unconstitutional by US courts.
      Secondly, it will waste precious resources to put all your 'profiles' through WBI when we should be focused on the risk not people's appearance. In point of fact, the last two airline bomb attempts have been carried out by Africans, Richard Reid 'the shoe bomber' is Moroccan, and Abdulmutallab is Nigerian. Neither would have been screened under your profiles.

      The more effective method for screening people is to use intelligence analysis and the behavioral sciences. Actively evaluating the database of information on a traveler such as frequent flier, method of payment, watchlists, etc will target some for in-depth further screening. Behavior Pattern Recognition – similar to profiling except it is examining an individual's behavior not appearance – will be the most effective means of grabbing the bad actors. Richard Reid was initially denied boarding in London because of his 'weird' behavior. The massive failure there was in another individual allowing him to board on the following day. Where was the previous day's report?
      Given Abdulmutallab's completely passive behavior after being apprehended by the passengers one cna only presume his pre-flight behavior patterns did not match the norm, not to mention his one-way, cash, no luggage, watchlist database information.

      To truly and proactively meet the 21st century challenge of terrorism we need to work smarter not harder. The dangerous people, rather than dangerous objects need to be the emphasis of these new screening systems.

      Thanks again for considering my comments and I will look forward to continuing our discussion.