Simon Davies: Gimmicks, hocus-pocus and ethnic targeting cannot be pillars of safety

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The Independent Online

The response of the US and UK governments to the Christmas airline bomb plot carries the seeds of a disastrous and counterproductive air security policy. Not only will an agenda of discrimination heighten global tensions but it may destabilise many practical and effective security procedures.

The new initiatives – ethnic targeting, increased passenger profiling, mass pat-downs and full body scanning – show how our authorities are once again preparing for the last terrorist attempt rather than the next one.

The failure of intelligence systems to prioritise, transmit and take action on crucial information that has been the Achilles' heel of air security. Yet, instead of focusing on intelligence sharing, policy makers often resort to gimmickry. Technology may have a limited back-up role but it will rarely, if ever, be the main pillar of an effective security policy.

Outright racial and ethnic discrimination is also bound to fail. Nigeria, for example, has just cause to criticise the US for its decision to target that country's entire travelling population. As the country's Information Minister has pointed out, the alleged perpetrator "was not influenced in Nigeria, he was not recruited or trained in Nigeria, he was not supported whatsoever in Nigeria".

Why, then, would the US decide to target this and a dozen or so other nations on the basis of a one-off incident? The answer is rooted in the retroactive policy process that has dogged air security for years. Many security officials only see what has gone before and cannot comprehend the nature of possible future threats. More disturbing is the reality that so many politicians demand responses that directly relate to what has just occurred.

The UK government is equally guilty of perpetuating this failed process. Instead of supporting an improved flow of vital intelligence data, Gordon Brown put himself full square behind the adoption of body scanners. That scanners appear to have limited value appears lost on a government desperate to assuage public concern by substituting support for a potentially viable security process with a photo opportunity.

Real answers such as subsidising better pay and training for security staff at airports in developing countries may not be fashionable or even visible. But they would be better than a million body scanners.

The world doesn't need more knee jerk hocus-pocus. We have a right to hard evidence showing which initiatives are necessary and proven, and which are based on illusion and blatant racial discrimination.

The writer is director of Privacy International