Is body screening the future of transit security?

By Jared Shelly

Imagine walking through a busy train station. You work your way through the crowds, buy a coffee, and finally get to the platform. You didn’t arrive an hour early, remove your shoes, or have your bag scanned — but that didn’t stop a team of security professionals from screening you for weapons and explosives.

How? By implementing body screening cameras that detect if you’re concealing anything under your clothing — like a gun or suicide vest. The devices use passive millimeter wave technology to read the energy naturally emanating from people’s bodies. If the system detects an anomaly — a blockage in that energy — security personnel will know if they’re concealing items underneath clothing that could be dangerous.

Unlike airport security measures, the body screeners deployed in transit stations allow people to naturally walk to their destinations, rather than requiring people to stand in long lines. They don’t show anatomical parts of people’s bodies. Instead, they appear more like blobs overlaying a person’s body. They can be installed in minutes with just a power source and an ethernet hook up — and can be set up almost anywhere.

In late August, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority became the first transit system to purchase and implement body scanners. They’ve also been tested in New York’s Penn Station, Washington D.C.’s  Union Station, and by San Francisco BART and New Jersey Transit.

Los Angeles Metro chose Thruvision, whose technology covers an area that’s approximately 16 feet by 16 feet — but can be narrowed to the size of a single turnstile if needed. Kevin Gramer, vice president for the Americas for Thruvision explained that the system works in a semi-compliant manner — meaning people will see signage telling them they’re being screened, but can walk normally around the train station without interruption.

“The person you’re screening is the transmitter, and we’re the receiver. We can’t tell if those items are a threat or not a threat. But if they’re in the shape of a gun or improvised explosive device (IED), clearly there’s a reason for taking action.”

Another company, QinetiQ, offers a similar product called the SPO-NX stand-off detection system. It can read up to 15 meters or nearly 50 feet. It has also been tested by the TSA in New York’s Penn Station and the Los Angeles Metro.

Evolv Technology is also able to scan using millimeter wave technology — although that system requires that people pass through a scanning gate that stands about 5-feet-high. But they don’t have to stop or slow down, and the system can scan 800 people an hour, without anyone having to remove their keys, cell phones, or coins. The company raised $18 million from investors like Bill Gates.

Moving billions each year

Rail systems represent a soft spot in the fight against terrorism and mass shootings. In 2017, a U.K. train bombing left 51 injured, and a man detonated a pipe bomb on a New York City subway, injuring only himself. It’s hard to forget the 2005 attack on the London Underground that killed 56 or the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191.

While airport-style security at train stations may be enticing, experts say it’s not feasible.

“Airports move millions of people through per year. Transit systems move billions,” said Polly Hanson, director of security, risk and emergency management at the American Public Transportation Association. “Airport-like security measures aren’t done because of the configuration and design of the stations, and sheer volume of people going through the system — many at peak hours.”

Not everybody is in favor of body scanners. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement saying there are still too many unanswered questions about the technology. Can people opt out? Will individuals with back braces or colostomy bags be mistreated?

“It is not clear whether the anticipated uses of the technology are constitutional… ” the ACLU said. “If it is as coarse a detector as television images suggest, it is likely to have a very high rate of false positives.”

Scanning, without bodies

There may be an alternative on its way. Patriot One Technologies (the sponsor of this blog) is close to releasing a weapons scanning system that relies on a combination of cognitive microwave radar, targeted magnetic sensors, and video recognition. “The body is a distraction. Our systems take the body out of it altogether. We’re looking for objects and the reflection of the signal off those objects,” said Martin Cronin, CEO of Patriot One.

While Cronin didn’t write off millimeter wave technologies or even scanners that rely on thermal detection, he said every technology has holes and employing an integrated system could patch them. Not only does millimeter wave technology generate images of the body, but they also need a line of sight from every angle to be comprehensive. Thermal imaging, which identifies metal objects because they are typically cooler than the human body, doesn’t always work in very hot or cold weather, Cronin said.

Rail systems like swiss cheese

Jason Porter, vice president of security at Pinkerton, warned against having scanners only at major transit stations and ignoring smaller ones.

“If I get a body scan at Penn Station, great. But what about the next station? If they don’t have the body scanner, are we really providing any level of security? A bad actor can just go to the next station and know they’re not getting scanned,” said Porter. “At what point is that a true investment in security or security theater?”

It’s a fair point, but the scanning systems are mobile and can be set up in a matter of minutes — meaning they can easily be set up at any station along a train line, not just the major ones.

While Porter calls the tech “innovative” and a “possible deterrent,” he said it needs to be part of a holistic security plan to be really effective.

“I don’t think there’s one piece of technology that’s going to be the magic pill to solve all issues,” he said. “The key to securing the rail lines is being flexible and building an in-depth defense with multiple fail-safes that will increase your odds of catching bad actors before an incident can happen.”



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