How to smuggle contraband through airports
Caution! The first point to make is that this is not an article about how to smuggle contraband through airports at all. That is a tongue-in-cheek title, intended to be humourous and to attract the reader to the textual body of this article, which does not give any advice on how to do such things which is always illegal. Instead this article is about how sophisticated airport security systems have become. It is for information only; we do not advise anyone either to break the law or how do it. Instead the purpose of this article is to answer some questions about contemporary airport security that we are often asked.
The nine basic methods employed in airport security are:
X-rays. All hold luggage and all hand luggage are x-rayed.
Metal detector. Most airports in the world use metal detectors to scan passengers personally.
A full body scanner, found ever more in airports across the world. They may be used as the primary means of search of a person's body or they may be used only if a metal detector is triggered. There are three types of full body scanner, that the amateur will be unable to distinguish easily but they are (a) millimetre wave scanners; (b1) back-scatter x-ray scanners; (b2) transmission x-ray scanners; and (c) infrared thermal conductivity scanners.
Cavity search in a private room. All airports have facilities for this; undertaking a cavity search does not require complex technology.
Personal interrogation. This often also takes place in a private room and may include and be part of the cavity search process.
Personal search of luggage.
Taking finger swabs and swabs from luggage to test for traces of explosives (common in British airports; typically executed randomly; not covered here as positive results are extremely rare)
Placing forensic probes into bottles of liquid, powders, gels etcetera, that will test for the principal recreational narcotics. (Used by the German police on international train travellers; very rarely if ever used at airports). Not covered here as too obscure.
Blood test. Not covered here because extremely rare; the only countries we have heard of in which passengers are given mandatory airport blood tests are Belarus and the United Arab Emirates, in both cases where a passenger in the airport appears to be high on drugs. (In both these jurisdictions it is a serious cime carrying long prison sentences even to have a recreational narcotic in your bloodstream.) Imagine if they adopted this approach in Ibiza airport!
Generally methods 4 and 5 are only used where method 2 or 3 has revealed something unusual about objects upon a person's body that cannot be resolved by putting them through the scanner again without some item of clothing that can be taken off and x-rayed.
Method 6 is invariably deployed where method 1 has revealed something untoward in either hold luggage or cabin luggage.
All hold luggage and cabin luggage will be x-rayed. X-rays are much like those in hospital; they reveal everything in the luggage.
In fact it is worse than that, because contemporary airport x-ray scanners come with software that highlights an object in the x-rayed luggage which has a particular density typical of contraband. Every item in luggage has its own distinctive x-ray density. So for example if you pack your hand luggage with a block of heroin and a block of cocaine, the x-ray interpreting software will bring up the words 'heroin' and 'cocaine' on the operator's screen and show on the x-ray where those items are to be found in the luggage.
Everything has its own x-ray density: all types of narcotics, plastic explosive, gunpowder, TNT, whatever it is you might be smuggling. Also the software through machine learning methods identifies x-rayed objects such as handguns, knives, other sorts of weapon, etcetera.
Therefore your contraband will be x-rayed and identified as contraband. (Remember that some items, such as knives, can lawfully be carried onto aeroplanes within hold luggage and if so they are not contraband and nothing will happen to you.) Once the security staff identify the contraband in your hand luggage or hold luggage, they will either give you an opportunity to fly without the item (e.g. a sharp pair of scissors in one's handluggage) or, if the infraction is more serious, they will have you arrested. They can either summon security guards directly to the place where you and your belongings are being searched; or, particularly in the case of contraband being discovered in hold luggage, the Police will arrest you at the gate. The third option is that they tip off the authorities at the destination airport who will arrest you at the plane's door. (If you have ever had the Police ask to see everyone's passports on the air bridge, then in all possibility that is what is happening.)
X-rays are pretty infallible and only operator carelessness will permit contraband onto an aircraft. The x-ray interpreting software is now increasingly sophisticated such that the risk of operator oversight is ever smaller; the x-ray software will flash, ping etcetera and send messages to managers.
The conclusion is that if you smuggle any contraband in hold luggage or hand luggage you are close to a 100 per cent chance of being caught. You cannot wrap contraband in lead sheets to prevent the x-ray process from taking place; lead itself, as a blocker of x-rays, automatically triggers a detailed manual search of your luggage if there is any lead in it.
Metal detectors create a magnetic field by using a brief pulse of electrical current. The magnetic field will be reflected back to the machine if there are any metal objects present, such as a watch or a belt buckle. The return signal is detected by the machine and a beeping noise is produced to alert the airport security officer.
Metal detectors typically have de minimis thresholds to prevent their going off due to body piercings and metal buttons on trousers. However some metal detectors are calibrated so finely that intimate body jewellery may trigger them. If this happens you will be directed to a private room and strip searched.
Metal detectors can penetrate clothes and flesh, so swallowing the metal object or otherwise placing it in one of the typical body orifices (mouth, vagina or rectum) will not prevent the metal detector from going off.. Where the staff cannot isolate the metal to anything except an object in your body, they will proceed to a full body scanner ((if the have one which a majority of international airports worldwide now do) and/or ultimately to a cavity search.
Small amounts of metal, such as in plastic handmade firearms or even some bootlace metal rings in one's footwear, can trigger a metal detector.
Do not seek to travel with metallic items of contraband through airport security. At the very least, every airport has a metal detector and your contraband will be found.
On the other hand, non-metallic items of contraband, such as drugs, will not trigger a metal detector. That is why the next option is becoming ever more ubiquitous.
Full body scanners
You may be directed to a full body scanner either automatically (i.e. the process is applied to every passenger); or at random; or because you have triggered a metal detector. Every airport is different; but as full body scanners proliferate, the norm is increasingly shifting to all passengers being the subject of a full body scanner.
Upon initial introduction of full body scanners there were privacy complaints because they enable airport staff to see images of passengers naked. However that concern appears to have evaporated over time as people got used to them
The mode of operation of the three types of full body scanneds is not relevant for our purposes but the differences in what they can discover are.
Millimetre wave scanners can detect metallic and non-metallic items of contraband under clothing but not ingested or concealed in a bodily cavity.
Two types of millilmitre wave scanners. These remain the most common form of full body scanner at international airports.
Backscatter and x-ray scanners will identify metallic and non-metallic contraband concealed under clothes or inside the human body.
X-ray scanners are controversial due to queries raised about their health effects. These queries are mostly nonsense derived from bogus axioms and entirely different environments (e.g. comparison wiith a hospital x-ray which is several orders of magnitude higher in the radiation it exposes the human body fo), and this has led to a slowed rolling out across airports than millimetre wave scanners.
The only way to detect an x-ray scanner is to look for an 'x-rays' or 'hazard' sign on the machine. Where x-ray scanners are used, it may only be in circumstances of a secondary search after a metal detector yields a positive read-out; but there can be no guarantees and airport practice may change.
In recent years some x-ray full body scanners have been removed as a result of passenger objections and/or health concerns.
Typical x-ray warning symbol
A full body x-ray scanner in use at a US airport. The key to spotting whether you are in an x-ray full body scanner is often that for a moment while the x-rays bombard you, you will actually be fully encased by the plexiglass the revolving doors are made of. The other two types of full body scanner do not have this requirement as they do not emit electromagnetic or other waves potentially of harm to the operators of the full body scanner even if exposed to their emissions all day. So the closing doors are one way of protecting the airport security staff, and they also ensure that the x-rays do not just pass straight through the body and machinery or the scanner without recording an item of the kind they are looking for.
Thermal conductivity scanners, currently the rarest of the three, detect contraband (metal or otherwise) but not inside bodily cavities.
One model of full body infra-red thermal imaging scanner.
A typical handheld thermal imaging scanner (used at checkpoints and the like; not a realistic substitute for a full-vody scanner in airport.)
Interestingly, the reason why millimetre wave scan and thermal imaging full body scanners cannot detect items inside the human body is because those items will have become the same temperature as the human body upon insertion in it; and both such scanners rely upon tiny differences in temperature within the bodies they are scanning. X-rays by contrast go straight through the body and identify differences in object density; the temperature of the items is irrelevant.
Cavity searches may consist of any or all of the following:
Asking you to open your mouth and a light being shined into your mouth.
Asking you to strip naked, hold open the cheeks of your buttocks, and then to squat down, so that any object in your anus or rectum is liable to fall out.
A personal examination of your anus and/or vagina with a finger (covered in a sterilised glove and a sterilised lubricant).
The use of a lubricated metal adjustable speculum on either anus or vagina (or both), together with a torchlight searc of the cavity..
Being detained in a room with a transparent toilet u-bend subject to video surveillance, until you have defecated; then studying the contents of the excrement. (Yes this may mean you miss your flight.)
A search of the penis and testicles and under the foreskin of the penis.
Undertaking a full ultrasound using a medical ultrasound machine
Because these procedures are low-tech (aside from ultrasound) and most to all law enforcement officers are trained in them, a comprehensive cavity search is likely to be undertaken if a discrepancy on a full body scanner cannot be otherwise resolved.
In virtually every country in the world, the cavity search will be undertaken by at least two persons of the same sex as the person being searched. Having two people present eliminates the risk that a searched person complains of improper treatment during the course of the search.
In many jurisdictions you are free to decline the cavity search but then you will not be permitted to fly and you will be escorted from the airport premises. In some jurisdictions a cavity search, when required by the airport authorities, is mandatory. (It is also mandatory on most prison admissions across the world, and in some countries upon arrest or in Germany even upon temporary detention on suspicion of narcotics offences whereupon a cavity search will routinely be undertaken before a person is at liberty to go.)
If contraband is found during the course of the cavity search, you will be arrested and charged as may be appropriate.
Depending on the jurisdiction:
You may be at liberty nor to reply to questions (but then you will not fly).
You may be obliged to answer questions on pain if criminal sanctions (this is UK law at an airport).
There may be a maximum period during which you can be questioned (in UK law it is nine hours; and yes you can miss your flight).
You may or may not have right of access to a lawyer (generally not at airports).
The questioning may or may not be limited to questions relating to your travel.
Giving a false answer will typically be a criminal offence, rendering you liable to arrest and imprisonment.
The interview is likely to be recorded in some shape or form; beware written minutes in a language you do not understand, that you may be asked to sign - refuse to do so and explain why ('I don't understand what the minutes say') and ask that the minutes incorporate your observation.
Access to your mobile other other electronic devices may be demanded and in many countries it is a crime to refuse to comply with such a demand.
At the same time as questioning you the police may be undertaking background checks on you, your friends and your family to seek to corroborate (or otherwise) what you are telling them.
You may not be offered any food (or if you are it will be at your own expense from an airport dispensary) but you will typically be allowed to use the toilet (the contents of your expulsions will be monitored) and take water.
Also note an arrival habit if you are on a list of people under particular suspicion. You will be guided to an immigration officer who is really a specially trained police officer in disguise, who will intentionally ask you questions with a view to catching you out and thereby denying you entry to the country and/or arresting you and/or incarcerating you in an immigration detention centre. If you think you are at risk of such a procedure, consult expert legal advice beforehand as you will not have the opportunity to consult a lawyer upon immigration entry questioning.
We provide training for such encounters but we are not the only people to do so.
Personal search of luggage
Once airport security staff are alerted to the presence of potential contraband in luggage, it will be extensively searched and, if necessary, re-x-rayed until the suspicious item is found. (We have all watched as our hand luggage is searched and re-x-rayed at some point.) Airport security staff are very skilled at personal searches of luggage - it is 90 per cent of what they do every day - and it is highly unlikely that they will miss a suspect material to which they are alerted. They may also search the linings of suspect luggage, if necessary cutting it open and damaging it. You will not receive compensation.
If you want to smuggle contraband through an airport, the only way to do so is inside the human body. Even then it is extremely risky. Modern airports are almost entirely sealed environments, and in time they will become completely sealed.
Note of gratitude
We are grateful to two persons familiar with these matters that shared their insights with us so as to make this article possible.
Addendum: non-exhaustive list of international airports in Europe and elsewhere deploying full body scanners
Virtually every US international airport
Italian international airports
Every international airport in Australia
Every international airport in Canada
We welcome all updates to this list as people travel and observe. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject title 'Scanners'.