Skip to Content

Technology Can’t Tame Terror

Former El Al security head Isaac Yeffet on how technology fails air safety.
September 1, 2003

Isaac Yeffet

Position: Founder, Yeffet Security Consultants, an airline security firm 
Issue: Air travel screening. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration wants to increase the use of technology to improve airline security. But will it really help? 

Personal Point of Impact: Former head of global security for Israel’s El Al airline   Technology Review: How can technology make security screening for air travel safer?

Isaac Yeffet: Technology works well when used to help qualified and well-trained human beings. Technology can never replace the human being. And in the U.S.A., technology is the only security that we have and rely on for baggage and carry-on screening in our airports. The people we have are not qualified, and the technology we have at the airports around the country-which has a 35 percent false-alarm rate-is the wrong concept.

TR: What kind of technology do U.S. airports use today?
Yeffet: The majority is in vision, with the CTX, a chemically blind x-ray machine that we see at airports. It can drive us crazy by identifying chocolate, cheese, pizza, cakes, et cetera, as something suspicious. Thirty-five percent of the time we get a false alarm, so you have either to rescreen luggage or open it for hand search. When we know that we send to U.S. air carriers alone 1.5 billion pieces of luggage and carry-ons every year, it comes to between 1.2 and 1.3 million pieces of luggage a day that we have to rescreen or hand search. Now this is wrong, because you cannot drive the screeners crazy by [making them open] luggage after luggage to find out there is no explosive. One of the biggest enemies of security is routine. After a while, it becomes a routine, and the screeners will not pay attention anymore. They are not even trained to do a professional hand search, especially when we deal with a sophisticated enemy who knows how to conceal explosives in a double bottom.

TR:The screeners seem like our primary line of defense, then. How are they hired, post-September 11?
Yeffet: We have 55,000 screeners around the country. By law, a screener cannot be hired without a criminal background check. Now, we found out that 22,000 security guys were hired without any background security check-after September 11. Millions of passengers, their lives are in the hands of these people. At JFK alone, in May they found that 50 security people have a criminal record. This is not the security that we need and deserve in this country.

TR:So how do you pick and train people properly for this job?
Yeffet: First, by hiring only qualified people, minimum high-school education, speaking both English and another language. Then we train them for days, not hours, and train them on the job, and then test them, test after test. I used to do thousands of tests every year when I was head of security for El Al. And I didn’t do simple tests by sending somebody with a fake explosive through the x-ray machine to find out if the screener can stop it. We did complicated ones where a passenger has to go with the luggage to the check-in to be interviewed by El Al security, and they have to determine if this is a bona fide passenger or suspicious passenger.

Unfortunately, the intelligence organizations cannot cover all the terrorist plans or activities, and therefore the security of the airline should act also as an intelligence agency. As an example, the employees of the ticket office and the reservations department have to be trained to send information to the security department of the airlines to tell them who came to buy tickets at the last minute, who paid cash, who bought a one-way ticket, and how they behaved. Nationality and so on and so on. Here, we don’t train anybody. We rely only on the low level of technology that exists at the moment at our airports.

TR: Is there any technology in use now that’s helpful?
Yeffet: If you go to Newark airport, Continental Airlines has a high level of security on the flights to Tel Aviv [in Israel] and to Amsterdam-fantastic security. They have a machine that within three to five seconds can tell you if your passport is fake or real. Why can they have it and other air carriers cannot? Why cannot we do this in other airports? Yes, it will cost them money, but this is the richest country in the world.

TR: What about CAPPS II, the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program, which the U.S. Transportation Security Administration wants to implement? It’s designed to gather the kind of data you’ve mentioned, such as nationality and method of payment, and analyze which air travelers might be risks.

Yeffet: Every small thing can help. The question is, is this the solution? Definitely not. Let’s assume you bought a one-way ticket, or you paid cash, which is not normal in the U.S. And it is in the computer. Who will interview you? Who will do the investigation? I want to know. Who will use the information, when we do not interview passengers? Who will determine who is suspicious, when we only train people how to operate x-ray machines and do body searches only when the alarm goes off?

TR: If the CAPPS II system has already identified which passengers are the risks, is it still necessary to question everyone?
Yeffet: Every passenger should be questioned. Most of the passengers are bona fide. I need to question them maybe two minutes, and they will be released. Now, say somebody is coming with a passport from Syria, Sudan, Iran, where we know that they support terrorist organizations with millions and millions and millions of dollars every month. Why cannot I treat this kind of passenger differently, not hurting his dignity, but to make sure he is not a risk? If he is bona fide, he has to appreciate the fact that I am checking him, because it will be also for his safety.

TR: This raises the question of privacy, which some activists say this new computer system will invade.
Yeffet: Privacy is important, but the lives of innocent people are much more important. After September 11th, we all are willing to give up some of our privacy and convenience to save lives. I have done many surveys for the media around the country in the last 17 years. We interviewed thousands of passengers. All of the people I interviewed are ready to give up some privacy for security-if we can prove that they really are more secure.

Now, what is privacy? I am not going to ask who is your boyfriend, how many children you have-questions that are nonsense. I am going to ask about security. And you will understand that my concern is your safety and security, because I am staying on the ground, and you are taking the flight.

TR: But some of the checks CAPPS II proposes to make-for instance, into financial data or criminal records-seem to enter those sensitive areas.
Yeffet: This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Stop digging in the heart of everybody. We are looking for terrorists and not for somebody that owed money or didn’t pay taxes. I am not worried about people smuggling money or whatever. I am worried about explosives and weapons. These are the terrorists that I’m looking to arrest on the ground before it will be too late. If we start to investigate anyone who drove while he was drunk, anyone who hit his wife, anyone who stole from the IRS, you will have lines 10 times worse than today. Stop it: concentrate on terrorism and security. And leave the nonsense. This is not aviation security.

Technology cannot replace the human being; it only can help. And if we rely on technology alone, I’m afraid that at the end, only the enemy will celebrate. I don’t want the enemy to celebrate any more. Let us build a proactive security system that will rely on the human being with the help of the technology, but not only technology, technology, technology.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI

The tool, called Nightshade, messes up training data in ways that could cause serious damage to image-generating AI models. 

The Biggest Questions: What is death?

New neuroscience is challenging our understanding of the dying process—bringing opportunities for the living.

Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist

An exclusive conversation with Ilya Sutskever on his fears for the future of AI and why they’ve made him change the focus of his life’s work.

How to fix the internet

If we want online discourse to improve, we need to move beyond the big platforms.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.