The headline of a recent CNBC news item told us: “Homeland-Security Business Still Booming Ten Years Later”, and “A decade after the 9/11 terror attacks, homeland security is still a growth business.”
Indeed, over the past decade, the U.S. government alone invested more than $20 billion in an attempt to increaseairport security by purchasing a variety of X-ray, tomography, chemical analysis, biometric and other systems. The global market is at least double that figure according to the article (which may be found at: http://www.cnbc.com/id/43185358).
The pace is not going to slow down according to the investment firm Morgan Keegan, which was also quoted in the CNBC item, as homeland security markets are forecasted to grow by 12% annually through 2013. Despite these impressive numbers, we should ask ourselves if the billions invested and spent improve our ability to detect, deter and mitigate “Next Generation” (Nex-Gen) terrorist attacks, or are they being spent, as the saying goes: “Chasing yesterday’s threats?”
Many of the technologies currently in our airports are almost 10 years old. By al-Qaeda’s own admission, they are developing hybrid explosives, containing organic and inorganic compounds to confuse existing detection technologies and their operators. While not ignoring existing threats (conventional explosives, metallic weapons), we must make sure we are developing technologies and training to provide an answer to those Nex-Gen threats.
The potential impact of an airline terror attack is huge, although the odds are 10 million to 1 that you personally will be the victim of an aviation terror attack, resulting in fatalities and injuries, catastrophic economic impact and most important, the opportunity to undermine public confidence in our security strategy and systems. Replacing aging technology, designed to detect last year’s explosive device, with new technology, also designed to detect the same device, demonstrates a disturbing lack of imagination, the one quality glaringly brought to light during the hearings of the 9/11 Commission.
The development process of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and their inherent chemical compounds are as dynamic as the organizations that employ them. We have reached a stage when IEDs can look like anything – toys, candy or even appliances. Device detection is slowly becoming a lost cause.
The enhancement of our intelligence capabilities would be well-placed. Now, more than ever, technologies designed to accurately identify the terrorist-passenger, are of critical importance. We need to increase our investment into knowing much more about the human element, knowing more about “who” is carrying the boarding pass (and the potential terror threat), as opposed the amount of liquids in their carry-on baggage.
Trusted Traveler programs, which would appropriately allocate more critical security staffing resources to those travelers who are not in the program, would be risk-based and more efficiently utilized. Technology developed to capture the travel habits of those vetted passengers and more importantly, distinguish the “infrequent” flyer, is where our research and development priorities should lie.
What aviation security needs now is a smart Passenger Verification System. Mindful of the importance of their civil liberties and privacy, frequent travelers have often indicated that they would provide essential personal information and ‘opt in’ to these types of programs if they could expedite their journey. The system should leverage a mix of technologies (for the same passenger), requiring an iris scan, smart passport, palm print and PIN number. Such a system can provide the additional detection and protection capabilities we need now and into the future.