Yesterday, the House Science and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held hearings about airport screening research and development. Chaired by David Wu (D-OR), the subcommittee surprisingly focused on passenger acceptance of the of the new technology rather than on technologies themselves.

The witnesses at the hearing were all science and technology types, but Chairman Wu wanted to initially speak about social issues, passenger acceptance of whole-body scanners, as the questioning began in the hearing room.

In his opening statement, the Chairman noted, “I am troubled by the lack of attention DHS has paid in the past to public acceptance issues. In 1997, the National Academy of Sciences identified the need to pay more attention to public acceptance issues in the deployment of passenger screening technologies. Ten years later the Academies concluded that nothing had changed and these issues were still ignored. No wonder the deployment of body-scanning technologies has proven to be such a public failure: the relevant agencies did not do their homework and follow-up on the Academies’ recommendation in a serious way.”

That set an early tone for the hearing. Though some time was spent on more technical issues, the Chairman pressed the issue of whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had ever even surveyed passengers to see what their opinions were about whole-body scanners.

He charged DHS with coming back to the committee with a real survey that can be clearly cross-referenced that presents American citizens’ feelings about being virtually stripped naked. He seemed to suggest that much of the privacy concerns surrounding these scanners were from special interests rather than from the population at large.

It was also interesting to note that the House members never referred to the whole-body scanners by the new DHS moniker, Advanced Imaging Technology (ATI).

At the end of the hearing, the take-away was more of getting the public to accept whole-body scanners rather than a exploration of the effectiveness of current and planned technologies.

There were no questions about whether the current whole-body scanners could have identified the explosives sewn into the Christmas bomber’s underware. No questions were asked about hiding explosives in body cavities. No queries about whether a hand grenade could be hidden beneath a woman’s large breast. No questions about the problems of operator fatigue while working in a telephone-booth-sized room for extended periods of time. No questions about the basic indignity of being stripped naked.

In terms of future technology, the DHS announced the formalization of a partnership with the Department of Energy that overseas the country’s main technology labs at Livermore, Calif., and the Sandia and Los Alamos labs in New Mexico. These labs are now working on explosives detection and other security issues.

Another extended discussion took place regarding the deployment of battalions of bomb-sniffing dogs. Rep. Garamendi (D-CA), half-jokingly mentioned that security was going to the dogs. That thought of canine security patrols was raised again by Chairman Wu who indicated that it may be far more cost effective to have thousands of trained explosive-sniffing dogs rather than thousands of whole-body scanners at $150,000 a pop.

The most interesting portion of the dog discussions was the revelation that the nation’s top labs at Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos were working on trying to develop an artificial dog nose. The only major problem was that scientists have no idea of how dogs detect explosives. This missing ingredient was making the artificial dog nose project difficult. However, federally-funded research is ongoing in the quest to discover how dogs actually sniff out bombs, bodies and drugs. We can train the animals, but we do not know the mechanics of the dog’s perception.

One of the limited real technology issues that was raised during the hearing was the complexities of explosives detection based on the increasing number of explosives types and on a quest to learn how much of an explosive is needed to cause catastrophic damage to an aircraft.

Another issue dealt with the continuing search for effective liquid explosives detection capabilities. New technologies, such as MagViz, are being tested. Initial testing was successful with small quantities, however the TSA and the science labs still have not determined how to scan a larger collection of items such as a full security-check bin.

Prepared testimony also focused on the research into Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST). This is a high-tech attempt to read people’s minds. In the words of Brad Buswell, DHS’s Science and Technology leader, the department is working to “determine if it is possible to detect malintent (the mental state of individuals intending to cause harm) by utilizing non-invasive physiological and behavioral sensor technology, deception theory, and observational techniques.”

In the meantime, the focus at this committee hearing was more on acceptance by the public of new screening technologies rather than on new technologies themselves.