Securing Air Cargo

Talk within the ranks of the security industry often focuses on air cargo security in regard to ground handling and transportation. There's good reason for concern, according to a report issued by the Office of the Inspector General within the Department of Homeland Security. OIG determined that some employees were sometimes accessing, handling or transporting air cargo without the required background checks or training.

The OIG report focuses on the Transportation Security Administration's efforts to secure air cargo while it's handled or transported on the ground. It further stated, "The agency's inspection process has not been effective in ensuring that requirements for securing air cargo during ground transportation are understood or followed."

The report uncovers security violations and vulnerabilities— and it concludes that the nation's air cargo is vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

In one case, undercover government investigators gained access to already-screened cargo ready to be placed aboard a passenger aircraft. This easily could have provided them the opportunity to place an explosive device into the cargo shipment. In other investigations, undercover agents gained entry through doors that were unlocked or had defective locks. In these instances, they were met by disinterested employees who did not prevent access to restricted areas.

"Although the percentage of facilities breached was relatively small, any lapse in security could have disastrous consequences," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "TSA must take urgent and aggressive action to close these gaps. We cannot expose the traveling public to this vulnerability."

TSA must redouble its efforts not only on testing and training, but also with employee background checks. To this end, OIG made six recommendations to TSA that would strengthen air cargo security during ground transportation.

The first recommends that TSA mitigate access control vulnerabilities by requiring more tests for access vulnerabilities, providing corrective actions and focusing more on entities that are not following access control requirements. It also would behoove the agency to promote awareness of access control vulnerabilities and their impact on cargo security.

The second recommendation seeks to improve the security threat assessment process by requiring regulated entities to keep copies of reviewed documents to authenticate the identity of an applicant, as well as revise the application form for failure to provide a Social Security number.

Recommendation No. 3 calls to enhance training and testing requirements by providing more specific guidance to regulated entities regarding training and testing requirements.

The fourth recommendation asks for the revision of the regulatory activities plan to allow more time for inspectors to incorporate a risk-based approach that emphasizes the use of historical data and analysis as well as provide support and education to the regulated entities to ensure that cargo security requirements are understood and implemented.

Recommendation No. 5 seeks better guidance, training and awareness for all users of the performance and results information system, especially TSA inspectors for cargo. Specifically, this means developing an action plan for TSA officials responsible for the performance and results information system to educate inspectors.

Last but not least, the report recommends TSA provides cargo inspectors with automated tools that would allow them to spend more time with regulated entities. These tools would include a PDA to enhance inspection activities.

To its credit, TSA is working to address access control vulnerabilities. The agency has established clear policy requirements for securing air cargo during storage, including physical security measures such as fences and cameras. With outside venders, TSA is exploring the use of an electronically serialized locking mechanism as a tamper-evident seal.

An interim final rule on air cargo screening will require that each aircraft operator maintains copies of an applicant's documents used to verify identity and work authorization. TSA also plans to implement a system to capture biometrics within the process. The agency also is developing a regulatory activities plan to include a risk-based approach to informal inspections. This will provide a risk score per regulated entity per location, which means regulatory staff can access risk scores specific to their airport.

The 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandates that DHS establish a system to screen 100 percent of cargo transported on passenger planes by August. Although the Certified Cargo Screening Program will relieve air carriers from having to screen all cargo, they must ensure that all cargo has been screened prior to takeoff. One of the best ways to implement security is controlling and tracking the screened air cargo's chain of custody, including a network of regulated entities and their third-party carriers responsible for ensuring security of the air cargo.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Security Today.

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