Electronics At Airports Depend On Security Staff

Feb. 16, 2004
I tried to check my irritation the other day at Newark International Airport when I had my all-in-one key-fob tool confiscated from my key ring. It had been on my key ring for years and through security screenings dozens of times, but because I was...

I tried to check my irritation the other day at Newark International Airport when I had my all-in-one key-fob tool confiscated from my key ring. It had been on my key ring for years and through security screenings dozens of times, but because I was heading to London, it was closely scrutinized and then confiscated before boarding.

All for the cause of homeland security, I told myself, and soon pretty much forgot about it (along with all those nail clippers we sacrificed in the early days following Sept. 11, 2001). But then in today's New Jersey Star Ledger came the report that Newark had failed for the second straight year to meet standards for electronically screening checked luggage for explosives, making it one among seven of the 429 major U.S. airports not in compliance. The problem? According to the newspaper, the airport is short-staffed at its bomb-detection machines and other security posts. In other words, while workers were busy confiscating my key ring with its mini-file and screwdriver, luggage was likely sailing into the plane's cargo hold, unsecured.

Some of you have worked long hours designing these electronic bomb sniffers, and I know you're proud of your work and your contribution to our safety. But if we're going to put all that design effort and some $4.7 billion of federal tax dollars into building and installing these minivan-sized machines, then let's make damn sure they're not just sculpture in the corridors! The Newark security lapse is all the more egregious, of course, considering the story of passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 sacrificing their lives in a Pennsylvania field to prevent hijackers from taking the plane back to Washington, D.C. (probably targeted at the White House). Flight 93's passengers are among our nation's greatest heroes. To respond to their heroic action with understaffed security systems is an insult to their bravery.

Still, the recent report from the national commission investigating the 2001 tragedy highlights the difficulty of predicting what methodology a terrorist might choose next, and hence the importance of making terrorist watchlist data available at immigration checkpoints. Agents at the Newark airport had scrutinized Flight 93 hijacker Ahmad al Haznawi on Sept. 11, carefully screening his checked bag for explosives. Meanwhile, hijackers were allowed to proceed through security with then-permissible box cutters, utility knives, and pocketknives. The State Department's terrorist watchlist then included some of the hijackers, yet that data wasn't available to airport security. The report also shows that many of the hijackers entered the U.S. by disguising their identities, using doctored passports and falsified visas.

Here's where electronics will make another major contribution to security, as airports are rolling out biometrics and electronic passports to help facilitate reliable identification and screening of travelers. The State Department is implementing the US VISIT system, creating an electronic travel-record database for all foreign nationals entering the country. The information in the database will be available to inspectors at ports of entry and to law enforcement agencies as necessary.

BIOMETRICS ON TAP As of October 26, 2003, travelers from nations involved in the visa-waiver program must carry a machine-readable passport compatible with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. Last spring, ICAO recommended 32k contactless chips to store face-recognition biometric data as well as digital photographs. The ICAO's proposal lets countries add fingerprint or iris images to the chip as well.

The program should speed entry and exit for legitimate travelers as well as help thwart those with falsified identities or known terrorist connections. Still, like Newark's bomb-detection equipment, the $380 million spent on the US VISIT system in 2003 will only fund a system as good as the care with which it is implemented and operated. When I returned to Newark from Europe, I saw the new biometric reader in place, but seemingly not yet in use. The US VISIT system is a great idea, but it's only as good as the thoughtful intelligence used to build the database and the careful effort made to hire and retain properly trained personnel. Let's hope that the implementation efforts will equal the care and thought that many of you have put into the electronics behind the system! Thanks for your contributions.

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