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OPINION / Layered airport security needs to move beyond the checkpoint
By Don Steinman
In a recent statement, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas wrote, "Our nation’s aviation security relies on a multi-layered approach that includes information sharing, enhanced technology and security screening. On Christmas day, that system failed."
Moving beyond the checkpoint
The issue is not the layered approach, but rather the placement and focus of those layers. Adding technologies like full-body scanners in response to the attempted bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab presents more of a challenge for terrorists, but it still does not address the limitations of the checkpoint layer of airport security. Indeed, it maintains a narrow focus that is susceptible to defeat.
For a complete and effective multi-layered defense, we need to look beyond checkpoints, watch lists and baggage, and move passenger screening out to the farthest perimeter. The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) concept of aviation security already involves a layered defense that "widens the lens," away from a single security checkpoint focus. If implemented as planned, this would provide additional security to currently vulnerable locations, such as airport lobbies. This broader approach to multi-layered security also gives us more opportunities to pre-screen and identify terrorists as soon as they enter the airport parking areas and lobbies, instead of depending solely on the usual checkpoint screenings.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano's statements at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on January 20, 2010 underscored the need to expand beyond the current layers. "I can't emphasize this enough -- in and of itself, no one technology, no one process, no one intel agency is the silver bullet here," said Napolitano. “It's good technology with behavior detection officers, with canines, with explosive detection equipment, with the right watch list with the right names on it and the right intel behind it."
Facing evolving terrorist plots and tactics, security measures must be as unpredictable as those with hostile intent. To accomplish this requires behavior detection officers (BDOs) equipped with innovative technologies that move security beyond the checkpoint to encompass all areas of the airport or other facilities.
The approach needed to address these threats is clear. According to Secretary Napolitano, TSA already uses "random and unpredictable measures to enhance security throughout the airport perimeter and in limited access areas of airports." Specifically, the TSA’s passenger screening program’s strategic plan applies a combination of BDOs and technology to identify potential threats far ahead of reaching the checkpoint, the GAO has reported.
Completing the layered defense
As part of this pre-screening concept, TSA has been testing standoff detection (SOD) technologies in airport lobby areas since 2007 to augment the BDOs and canine teams currently being used. Employed in collaboration with BDOs, SODs can aid in screening individuals in a non-invasive way, without problematic privacy concerns. And, with SODs, the standoff capability limits the ability of those that pose a potential threat from evading detection, as they might at a traditional security checkpoint.
We cannot remain reactive to specific scenarios. Rather, DHS must take an aggressive, proactive stance on airport security, execute the plan they have already developed and, above all, implement a much-needed, broader security layer. Standoff detection gives us all the protection we deserve from the threats of today and tomorrow.
Don Steinman is the director of product transition at QinetiQ North America's Technology Solutions Group. He can be reached at: