The Transportation Security Administration revealed Wednesday that it has been testing a device to detect suicide vests in populous areas that lack official security screenings, like subway stations.
The announcement comes days after a would-be suicide bomber detonated a homemade device in a New York City transport station, injuring five commuters, as well as himself.
“Along with industry partners, we are committed to identifying, testing and deploying technology that addresses threats to transportation across the spectrum,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. “We need to innovate and evolve faster than the adversary, and more importantly, deploy technology ahead of the threat-curve.”
Known as a “stand-off explosive detection units,” the device signals when someone is wearing a metallic or non-metallic device that is blocking some of the body's natural emissions. The device itself does not emit radiation, nor does it reveal anatomic details of the person to the operator, the TSA claims.
Stand-off explosive detection units have been used before to protect other so-called “soft targets,” such as the Super Bowl, according to The Hill, and the technology is more than a decade old. They are non-invasive, as passersby only need to walk near them, not wait in line or stand still for a screening as in the airport. Researchers have performed some studies concerning their effectiveness, but few publicly available trials have been released.
“In the real world it’s hard to know what you missed,” Jeffrey Price, an expert in aviation security at Metropolitan State University of Denver, told Travel + Leisure. Even if the technology isn’t perfect, however, it is less invasive than other alternatives, according to Price.
“It’s a better solution for public area for security than establishing actual, physical checkpoints,” he said.
The TSA has partnered with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to test the device. The agency has been testing similar devices since 2004 with partners such as Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, according to the same press release.
The TSA and other security agencies around the world have looked at how to keep people safe without constantly expanding screening areas or militarizing “soft” targets. In trying to protect public and open targets, such as cafés and concerts, security officials have often been at a loss of how to prevent bombings in areas where people are relatively unscreened.
Stand-off explosive detection units are just one part of a discussion concerning airports, transportation hubs, and hotels in particular. In hotels, for instance, other experts have suggested more and better training for employees of potential targets, cooperation between security agencies, and even algorithms to better predict human behavior.