A Personal View Expressed by Prof. Michael Breadmore

“…when we asked what the background levels of potassium chlorate would be in an airport we were told that they don’t know…”

Recently in my travels through an airport I overheard some other passengers engaged in a discussion around airport security. I won’t repeat the whole tale, but let’s just say it was branded ‘security theatre’. A quick ‘google’ of the phrase brings up the Wikipedia page where it is described as “the practice of investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually achieve it”. I had not heard this description before and was disturbed to hear that there were people who held this view.

As someone who is, as an academic researching explosive detection solutions, casually acquainted with security screening industry – although I still view myself as outsider – reflecting on my own experiences travelling around the world, and through various transportation hubs, is insightful. Inconsistency is, I believe, the main reason for the perception of ‘security theatre’. In some jurisdictions there is a requirement to take off my shoes, whilst in others there isn’t. Sometimes I need to start up my computer/iPad/phone, whilst in others I don’t. Some do not detect the forgotten keys in my pocket, while at others I am sent back through the archway and rescreened having divested them. In some I receive a random ETD test, while in others I don’t. If the purpose is to identify and detect security threats, how can these all be doing it to the same extent if they are doing it all differently and to different levels?

In my academic research we conduct experiments and make observations, compile these into a data set and then construct arguments to explain them. This develops into a hypothesis which is then interrogated through more experiments to ensure it is robust and that we are correct. This is then published and available to other academics or provided in reports to industry and government where it may be used to make decisions and justify policy. Is it a lack of evidence or a different interpretation of that evidence that results in a difference in practice between Sydney and Los Angeles?