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A Year In Aviation Security

 Author(s): Neil Fisher, Posted 12/1/10

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As we approach the anniversary of the failed Christmas bomber attack, it seems an appropriate time to look back at what has proved a challenging year in aviation security.

Since the Christmas Day scare, there’s been a lot of emphasis placed on full-body scanners. They were introduced in the UK, at Heathrow and Manchester airports and according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), there are around 300 full body scanners in around 60 U.S. airports.

They’ve also sparked a lot of debate around whether this standalone technology is sufficient in plugging gaps in our national security – as discussed in my article for The Guardian earlier this year.

They have stirred up controversy from a legal point of view. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK has warned that their use may be breaking discrimination law, while the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the machines as a “virtual strip search.” Consequently, the TSA is now testing new X-ray technology that will show a stick figure rather than a full human body.

New protocol for those who decline to use body scanners has also led to significant backlash.  

According to TSA rules, a passenger who refuses must submit to rigorous pat-down inspections that include inspection of the inside of travellers’ thighs and buttocks. Faced with this prospect, a software engineer gained national notoriety and support after posting an internet blog item saying he had been ejected and threatened with a fine for refusing a groin check after turning down a full-body scan at San Diego airport. The speed at which the blog went viral is indicative of the national mood and arguably an important lesson for the industry.

However, despite the furore, it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of people just want to feel safe. According to the April 2010 wave of the Unisys Security Index, 90% of UK consumers would be willing to undergo full electronic body scans to ensure a safe passage and 91 per cent would be willing to readily submit biometric data such as iris scans and fingerprints to identify them when travelling by air.  

In recognition of this growing acceptance, we’re seeing broader roll-out of biometric technology to secure our borders on this side of the pond. In November, Manchester airport announced that it’s testing iris-on-the-move – an innovative, non-invasive biometric technology which will speed up airport check-in by capturing travelers iris images as they walk through a portal.

However, despite the column inches, it’s important to recognise that scanners, full body or otherwise, are only a part of the solution. Looked at a different way, the body scanners represent an approach that assumes the passenger is anonymous. They do not flag when a high-risk passenger enters the screening process. This intelligence is crucial and must be blended into a coherent security approach.

In a coordinated strategy, a front-line sensor such as a body scanner would comprise only one of four different steps. The four steps are:

  • Integrated sensors such as body scanners
  • Co-ordinated data fusion combining data from multiple sources to gather meaningful information on travellers
  • A common operational picture that displays the current security system in such a straight forward way that an operator with basic training would be able to establish the situation at a glance, as well as the appropriate next steps
  • Joined-up back office analysis to link personal information on a ticket booking system with information on the person being screened.

All of these elements come together to provide a complete picture of the threat. A scanner on its own is not enough.

Cargo security also hit the headlines this year, following the detection last month of an ink cartridge bomb on a plane at East Midlands Airport and in Dubai, both on their way to synagogues in the U.S. The explosives originated from Yemen and according to Scotland Yard, could have detonated while in flight. The incident highlighted vulnerabilities in our air freight supply chain and led to calls from the UK and U.S. governments for greater air cargo security measures.

Ironically, this incident followed a fevered debate in the UK around the efficacy of the some of the ad-hoc security measures the aviation industry has introduced over a period of years, starting with a curb on carrying liquids after an alleged terror plot to bring down as many as 10 planes travelling from the UK to the U.S. was foiled in 2006.

While some of these measures are entirely necessary, British Airways’ chairman Martin Broughton described some security practices as completely redundant and suggested the examination of passenger shoes and laptops shoes should be abandoned

In many respects, Broughton was right to initiate this debate. The industry’s knee-jerk approach to security has resulted in a fragmented picture of our air security capabilities.

I believe that we can only create a dynamic and powerful shield around our critical transport points by taking a holistic view –  by joining up the dots and updating information as the terrorist threat evolves. So far, we have only reacted to threats as they occurred, partly because this approach appears to save money in the short term.

U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman nicely summed up both the UK and U.S. security strategy during a hearing on the proper response to air cargo ink cartridge bomb:

“After the 9-11 hijackings, we hardened cockpit doors. Then the terrorists tried a shoe bomb, and now we remove our shoes for inspection at airports. Then the terrorists tried liquid explosives hidden in sports drinks, targeting seven planes flying over the Atlantic Ocean, and we cracked down on liquids that could be brought on board. Then the underwear bomber came close to bringing down a plane over Detroit, and now we’ve gone to full body imaging. Now terrorists are going after a weak spot in cargo inspections, and we will respond to that, as well we should. But they – our enemies – will keep looking for new vulnerabilities. And we have got to continue to try to go out and raise our defences before they strike.”

The past year has demonstrated that a piecemeal approach to security will only expose our weaknesses. It’s time to shift the balance of initiative and make the terrorists react to our forceful capability. By taking a cohesive approach to security, we can pre-empt vulnerabilities and take speedy and appropriate action with minimum cost and least disruption.


The statements posted on this blog are those of the writer alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unisys.

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