The high-tech equivalent of an airport strip search is among the range of technologies Australian authorities are considering in the scientific fight against terrorism.
The deputy chief of CSIRO Molecular and Health Technologies, Dr Greg Simpson, said technology that could see through clothing was already being used to detect items concealed in pockets or strapped to the bodies of suspects in the United States.
"It’s a slight step on from pat-down searching," Dr Simpson said.
Not yet as easy to use as X-ray screening, the machines were used as part of a tiered approach to security screening, with only people identified as suspects subjected to the imaging.
However, continuing research into terahertz and millimetre wave technology meant such methods were likely to become more effective.
"[It] would speed up the process, but that brings up privacy, rights of the individual and cultural issues," he said.
"Australians might not be so bothered by it, but for some cultures, that wouldn’t be possible."
Dr Simpson is the director of the CSIRO’s Secure Australia program, established by the Federal Government to protect the nation against risks including terrorism.
He said while the imaging technology was unlikely to be approved for use in Australian airports soon, authorities were considering all types of scientific advances that could work in conjunction with intelligence to reduce the terrorist threat.
Other techniques were being designed to spot people whose body language indicated they were a potential threat.
"Seeing if people are behaving abnormally, if they are carrying cases, if they are people who were known before or people who keep turning up in the same clothes."
However, he warned against adopting a false sense of security by thinking these types of technology could thwart all terrorist attacks.
"It’s not a definite indicator of terrorist activity. It’s just a first level of detection that might alert someone else to do a tighter screen."
Dr Simpson addressed a media briefing in Sydney today on the science of terrorism, convened by the Australian Science Media Centre.
An associate professor in management at the University of South Australia, Robert Heath, said authorities faced enormous challenges in identifying would-be attackers, as closed circuit television footage before recent attacks in London showed.
"They are just normal people, wearing normal clothes. They don’t have ‘I am a terrorist’ stamped on them," Associate Professor Heath said.
The expert on the psychology of terrorism said young people in Western societies were increasingly turning to terrorism because they were searching for something to believe in, driven by a culture of immediate gratification.
A leading United Kingdom neuroscientist, Professor Susan Greenfield, said understanding the brain could be a key to identifying potential terrorists.
While there was no "terrorism gene", further research could reveal important information about who might be susceptible to the teachings of terrorist groups.
Professor Greenfield, who directs the Royal Institution in London, said today’s society placed more weight on having experiences than in appreciating the consequences of those experiences.
This had led to a change in the way people perceived risk, which could have flow-on effects for victims and perpetrators of terrorism.
"It follows that the next generation will be more reckless and more prone to risk," she said.
The Australian Science Media Centre is an independent not-for-profit centre that promotes the understanding of science in the news.