Airport technology to improve in attack aftermath
By Ed Scannell and Cathleen Moore
(IDG) -- One of the first technology improvements to be made in the wake of Tuesday's horrific disasters will be better scanning technologies at national airports, according to industry experts.
A catalyst for the security upgrades are initial unconfirmed reports that the hijackers did not carry on guns, explosive materials, or other metal objects that could be easily detected, but knives with plastic handles with embedded razors.
In the view of some security experts, such weapons and others made of materials such as graphite epoxy could easily pass through existing scanning technologies undetected.
"Obviously, one thing they are going to be trying to understand is what sort of weapons were used and whether these might be extended [to scan] non-metallic weapons. If not, this will require scanners other than metal detectors at the airport," said John Pike, an executive with the research group Global Security.org.
There is non-magnetic scanning technology available that essentially can perform whole body scanning, but it is not in very widespread use, Pike said.
Other technology possibilities include retinal and other forms of biometric scanning as a way of identifying potential perpetrators, but those technologies could be years away from being used broadly, in the opinion of many.
For instance, to make retinal scanning effective, a complex and integrated database would have to be created -- one that could be easily shared among airports around the world.
"I think there will be growing interest in using biometric scanning at international access points in order to catch known people coming in on false papers. The problem is, even if all these searches disclose the identity papers of some of the perpetrators, that will not tell you necessarily what their mother named them since none of these people travel under their own names," Pike said.
Many of the leading makers of airport security equipment routinely work with national laboratories such as those in Los Alamos and Sandia.
"Labs like Los Alamos are working with private industry to develop a number of technologies like this, but whether these guys think they have a magic bullet is a different matter," Pike said.
However, some next-generation security technologies may not be that far off. For instance, some airlines already use face recognition systems to check passenger identities as part of their ticketing procedures to identify people who are suspected terrorists.
Facial recognition technology from Viisage Technology, based in Littleton, Mass., is currently used in two European airports to augment tradition x-ray scanning and metal detection systems.
Facial recognition systems scan passers-by, taking identifiable facial measurements such as the distance between eyes, angle of the nose, and thickness of lips. The systems can find a match against a database of 8 million images in less than one second, according to Tom Colatosti, president and CEO of Viisage.
"We think facial recognition could make a significant difference in airport security. It was reported in the media that one of the suspects [in the recent attack] was in the FBI database. If we had our system running it would certainly have had some probability of identifying him."
Far from representing an airtight solution, facial recognition systems face challenges from identity fraud and the limited number of images available in databases.
According to former U.S. Army intelligence officer Marc Enger, now executive vice president of security operations at computer security constancy Digital Defense, in San Antonio, Texas, several promising security technologies, including biometrics, explosive sniffers, and image matching, should be employed to augment human security efforts at airports and other public spots.
"You want humans to check the false positives, as opposed to making the humans look at all luggage and each passenger. Technology can let the human intervene in security more effectively," Enger said.
Meanwhile, Pike observes another obvious improvement that can be made is to better secure cockpit doors. Back in the 1970s it was standard procedure to lock them, something that has not been common practice for years, according to industry observers.
"It has been a long time since I have not been able to get a look at the cockpit as I get on a plane," Pike said.
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