Can You Spot the Contraband in These Airport Baggage X-Rays?
The TSA has a long list of things you can’t bring onto a commercial flight these days. Scissors. Cigarette lighters. Car airbags. Pool cues. And of course, guns, knives, bombs, and other weapons.
If you’ve taken a plane (or follow the TSA on Instagram), you’ve probably wondered how the airport security officers who scan carry-on bags watch for all those threats simultaneously. You’ve probably pondered how well you’d do the job. And—admit it—you’ve craned your neck to peek at their screens, trying to suss out the contents of someone else’s carry-on.
Here’s your chance to take a closer look: The gallery above includes eight x-ray images of luggage, each containing contraband of some sort, including firearms (some real, some fake), knives, and, most devious of all, excessive liquids and gels.
Simulscan, an Italian company that offers computer-based x-ray screening training, provided an inside look at the screening process when it gave us these photos. CEO Roberto Sergnese was a security expert at Continental, PanAm, and American Airlines before starting the company. He says becoming adept at checking luggage for contraband requires answering three questions: What are you looking for? What does it look like? What does it look like in an x-ray image?
“You don’t have to recognize everything inside a bag,” Sergnese says. That simply isn’t feasible. The trick is knowing what the threats are, and how to spot them. That means knowing, say, how a terrorist might fashion an improvised explosive device. “Nobody will come with a bomb like in the cartoons,” he says.
Of course, he wasn’t about to say just what TSA agents and others are looking for, citing, as you’d expect, security. But ultimately, you’re looking for anomalies. Things that don’t look quite right. That’s where experience comes in: The more totally ordinary bags you see, the easier it is to spot potentially dangerous deviations from the norm.
For this quiz, you don’t have that experience, or, presumably, any official training. You do, however, have a few advantages: You know there’s something to find in each image. You haven’t just spent hours doing this, watching socks and skivvies and bottles of shampoo no bigger than 3.4 ounces roll by in an unending torrent. And you don’t have a growing line of exasperated travelers getting impatient while you stare at their belongings. So get to it.
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