A global approach to identifying security threats

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As we all wait for the findings of the investigation into the cause of the Russian Metrojet incident that resulted in the tragic loss of 224 lives, it is inevitable that our thoughts turn to the safety and security of airports around the world. Last week Carolyn McCall, chief executive of EasyJet, stated that a global rethink around airport security is needed.

Many airports around the world have invested heavily in their safety and security systems, triggered to a large extent by the events of 9/11 in 2001 in New York City, USA. However, the point that McCall is making is that not all airports have the same levels of security.

The size of the task at hand was brought home to me while traveling on an EasyJet flight from London to Berlin last week. This year, the airline is expected to carry 68 million passengers, each of whom needs to pass security, travel through the terminal and repeat the process again when they arrive at their destination. So, that is 136 million security checks in total, on just one airline.

The numbers get even crazier when you take into account that each passenger will be accompanied by one or more pieces of luggage, and it is luggage that is the main focus, especially as initial reports suggest an explosive device may have been the cause of the Metrojet incident.

Marrying people with their possessions

Inevitably, there will be calls for every airport to reassess their security processes and protocols. For me, one of the first places to begin is with luggage. I am not talking about restrictions around what can and cannot be carried on, although this is important. I am talking more about the importance of the marriage between passengers and their cargo.

While I was rushed to the departure gate (I never give myself enough time to walk), I passed an airport worker standing next to a large, sealed duty-free bag and overheard her say to a colleague that it had been left and she was waiting for security to arrive. My first thought was for the poor person who had forgotten their bag of shopping. My second was a reassurance that it had been identified and was being dealt with.

My next thought, as a security professional with experience of working with airports, was to wonder what processes were going on at that moment. What happened after the worker had been alerted to the bag? The following reflects on what I would like to happen in an ideal world.

Locating the origin and owner of an object

The bag was automatically detected as being abandoned and an alert was raised on the screen in the control room. This automatic alert triggered the nearest worker in the terminal to attend the bag, cordon off the area and await further instructions. Meanwhile, the surveillance operator was presented with a live feed from the nearest CCTV cameras and a replay of the minutes leading up to the bag drop, in order to ascertain how the object came to be there.

It seemed that a lone male placed the bag down to take something out of his pocket and wandered off. It could be an innocent mistake but at this stage it is impossible to call. The operator grabs a still image of the male and an automatic sweep of all the cameras in the terminal is carried out (in a matter of seconds), pinpointing on a map of the terminal not only the current location of the person but also all of his movements since arriving at the building. There is no major cause for alarm, however, with his location confirmed and a camera now trained upon him, the airport police are dispatched and the individual is questioned. Hopefully, the end result is a passenger happily reunited with his duty-free purchases and a warning to be more careful in the future.

If the operator had reason for suspicion, then, in accordance with the US Department of Homeland Security’s guidelines, there would need to be a building evacuation distance of 45m (148ft) from the terminal building. This was the case last year when Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 1 was evacuated for almost two hours while a police bomb squad investigated the report of an unattended bag.

There are literally tens of thousands of items lost/left behind in airports every year and the likelihood of a piece of unattended luggage being an improvised explosive device (IED) or bomb threat is very small indeed. However, every incident needs to be taken seriously.

The reality of the situation

My reflections of the handling of the situation in London are idealistic. However, for many large international airports this is fast becoming a reality thanks to the investment made in new safety and security systems. Through the use of new ground-breaking innovations such as Qognify’s PSIM (physical security information management) Suspect Search and Object Origin solutions, airports are now able to rapidly identify, assess and manage potential and real threats far more efficiently and effectively, whether it is a lost bag of duty free goods, right the way through to managing a major terrorist incident, in accordance with regulation and best practice.

Not only does this provide better security it also helps airports to maintain their to-the-second schedules and mitigate the risk of stiff financial penalties for delays. In the case of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport it is estimated that for every minute the terminal was evacuated it cost an estimated US$33,600 (figures from the Journal of Aviation Technology and Engineering); so, for the two-hour evacuation the total would have been in the region of US$4m. The evacuation also caused a great deal of distress to passengers, airport workers and their families, and saw the airport receive unwanted media attention.

In my view, when it comes to safety and security, airports need to have an open door policy with each other, to learn from mistakes and to share innovations and improvements. Big international airports should work together but should also provide support and guidance to smaller regional airports. After all, it is a truly global interconnected industry.

In 2001, EasyJet flew 10 million passengers, representing more than a six-fold increase in 14 years. It is phenomenal growth for the airline and is indicative of the overall increase in passenger numbers around the world.

While airports are becoming more crowded and are placed under even greater pressures, security threats are not going to go away any time soon. As civil societies and functioning economies, we rely on a friendly and efficient aviation industry, so addressing this challenge is an absolute necessity. While we cannot be paralyzed by the atrocities committed by terrorist attacks, airports ought to find the right balance between security needs and the passenger experience. In my view, innovative technologies can be instrumental in bridging this gap.

Udi Segall, director of business development for Qognify, is responsible for devising and executing go-to-market strategies and solutions aimed at improving organizations’ operational efficiency and security. Prior to joining Qognify, Segall spent more than 10 years working in the data communications field, holding various positions in engineering management and marketing at both private and public Israeli hi-tech companies. Segall holds a degree in Electrical Engineering from Hertfordshire University, England, and holds a patent for acceleration of web traffic over cellular networks.

November 25, 2015

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