No Longer An Easy Target

Fast-paced airports can be attractive to terrorists, but new technologies are keeping passengers and cargo secure

Transit and shipment systems crisscross the country above and below Americans at hurried rates, moving millions of passengers and tons of freight each day. Above us, the active airways, often represented by blinking dots on a radar screen, nourish the nation's commerce and travel. Yet, this same frantic flow makes the country's circulatory system difficult to secure and, thus, attractive to attackers.

When it was founded following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration recognized as one of its primary challenges the balance between predictability and flexibility. Finding equilibrium between these two approaches underscores the obstacles confronting counterterrorism.

The aviation industry's reliance on flight schedules, regimented security protocol and fixed operational routines contribute to a predictability that accomplishes the fundamental mission to efficiently transport millions of passengers and millions of pounds of cargo daily. Yet, as investigations like the 9/11 Commission found, it was precisely this regularity that enabled those seeking to breach the system to predict the likely outcome of their abuse.

After years of planning, the 2001 attacks were physically launched from major airports on the East Coast -- ones that had been studied vigorously and repeatedly by the hijackers. Minor airports, however, present a slightly different dilemma. The hundreds of general aviation airports throughout the country operate with much more lenient schedules, robbing plotters of the consistency upon which to plan a precise attack. Yet, with more pliable procedures come more loopholes through which an attack may fly.

One way of defending against similar unintended vulnerabilities, government appropriators and auditors have found, is by going behind the scenes. Part of this solution is randomization. Airports worked to prohibit access to non-passengers, install police forces that rival the size of small towns' squads and implement arbitrary security screening?a practice that would one day draw heat for too heavily profiling minorities and the next day for too frequently patting down grandmothers.

But through another tactic -- trusting technology that facilitates flexibility and aids analysis -- airport officials figure they can achieve a measure of unpredictability to keep would-be terrorists on their toes. New technologies are being introduced into the market each day, most selling their capacity to assimilate myriad systems and offer redundancies essential to a multi-layered security procedure.

London's Lessons

"Unfortunately, it often requires a major disaster to arouse concern sufficiently to mobilize the political will to take needed action," said Rand Corp. analyst Brian Michael Jenkins before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004.

One of the most striking aspects of the events in London last July was the role surveillance cameras played in cracking open the anatomy of the attacks. One of the more predictable aftershocks was the subsequent outcry for greater protection of transit station and train networks.

Among the most valuable and practical lessons, however, was surveillance footage's contribution to aborting subsequent attacks just two weeks later. The 200,000 security cameras posted throughout the city, including 6,000 in the underground subway system alone, produced rapid identification of the bombers. The security pictures quickly crossed airwaves and newspaper pages, proving indispensable to the investigation.

Not only do technologies integrate with one another across a variety of platforms, but experts suspect they can help unite the diverse regions and levels of the airport security apparatus. A September 2005 GAO report discovered confusion over who had authority to take action during a security incident. With carefully directed technologies, protocols can be better understood.

Assessing the Risk
While the TSA and FAA classify security protocols, recent government reports and terrorist strikes hint at the demand for new technologies in aviation. In his testimony last year before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, TSA Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley forecast the application of security technologies developed for other purposes, including aviation, in mass transit and rail systems across the United States.

Washington recognized the demand. Since the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has spent more than $18 million on airline security. President Bush's Fiscal 2006 homeland security budget proposes $2.4 billion for counterterrorism preparedness, as well as $600 million for protecting targeted infrastructure -- a 60-percent increase from the previous year.

Beyond that, the DHS office responsible for preparing state and local governments against attacks allotted more than $255 million to the effort, part of which was dedicated to surveillance equipment, explosive detection and other essential technologies.

The appropriations are part of an approach to focus security efforts on risk assessment, especially after the rail attacks in London and Madrid. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced early in his tenure a "second-stage review" of the department's trajectory. In doing so, he re-emphasized the importance of analyzing vulnerabilities with a focus on outcomes -- an approach that invited technology capable of analyzing trends, recognizing threats and assessing probability.

As a result, DHS awarded funding for those technologies to airports and other high-risk areas including ports, border crossing and iconic structures in areas with greater risk -- even if that meant the politically perilous decision to place greater weight in certain areas of the country than others.

Screening Cargo and Baggage

The need for immersive imaging aided by video analytics may be needed nowhere more in the aviation world than in cargo transport. The debate over cargo and baggage security has heated up of late, prompting a host of government studies and media scrutiny.

Twenty-three billion pounds of cargo crossed the United States aboard airplanes in 2004, yet a GAO report last November found that an exhaustive cargo screening program is years away. Darkened by the memory of the 9/11 hijackers' box cutters, the TSA drew heat for its recent relaxation of rules barring some sharp objects on passenger flights. But a Los Angeles Times editorial argued the move frees up airport screeners to "more thoroughly check passengers for a far bigger threat to air safety: bombs." The implementation of advanced technology, the piece implies, would free up those screeners to focus on all kinds of suspicious carry-ons.

While many Americans do not feel personally affected by the safety of cargo flights, a quarter of those 23 billion pounds accompanied passenger flights. Of greater concern for security personnel is the fact that much of the cargo vulnerability begins in plain view. CNN reported last summer that relaxed cargo screening meant containers sat unattended and unsecured, neglected within reach behind unlocked, or even wide open, gates.

A spokesperson for the Postal Service said that many security officials count on the tens of thousands of people with access to cargo to report suspicious activity since there is no regular monitoring of what existing security cameras record.

Rule No. 1 in this has long been that any program is only as good as the people behind it. The efficacy of baggage screening is limited by the attentiveness of those reviewing luggage, and surveillance technology works only when human monitors act on suspicious activity and trends.

Finding Solutions
Body searches and handbag screenings are the image of airport security, as well as the long lines and high costs linked to these procedures. But explosive detection systems have evolved to impressive heights. They now can detect traces of narcotics on a person with a puff of air.

Surveillance technology, similarly, has graduated far beyond the standard bank of convenience store cameras that has long served as the model for catching thieves. Some provide automated recognition of suspect or irregular activity, such as neglected baggage, which empowers more effective and rapid defense at high-risk facilities.

Special analytical software -- called video analytics in the case of surveillance camera technology -- turns a once-static security device into a thinking machine. Once the camera's eye captures a scene, it can transmit it to the software, whose artificial intelligence processes the situation.

Using this technology, a camera can then search for particular faces, such as those on a watch list. If a suspect is identified, the cameras can automatically freeze the frame, zoom in and even track that specific subject.

Coupled with extensive networks of databases that give the captured images invaluable relevance, these new technologies have given airport security officials the benefit of a virtual intelligence agent.

When software can monitor video, analytics can evaluate it and sophisticated detection devices can track explosives and narcotics, the theory is that technology becomes a force multiplier. When terrorists have an infinite number of targets from which to choose, not limiting security options to the number of humans on the payroll could prove a priceless advantage.


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