Transportation Security: Back to the Future

Reprinted from The Hill

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued directives for expanded passenger screening at airports as a result of the turmoil and new threat intelligence coming out of the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said that he’s told the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to put in place “enhanced security measures in the coming days.”

There are reports of new generations of bombs now being developed by terrorists that could present serious risk to commercial aviation. This could lead to enhanced scrutiny of U.S.-bound passengers, including more explosive-detection equipment and random screenings in the near future. The new challenge facing intelligence agencies, such as the DHS and particularly the TSA — the component of the DHS that runs airport security — is the growth of potentially radicalized terrorists or foreign fighters carrying valid U.S. and European passports. Syria and Iraq have become an incubator for terrorists that pose a similar threat to that of al Qaeda a decade ago.

Thankfully, airport security has come a long way since 9/11. We now have hardened cockpits, air marshals, more sophisticated screening equipment and better intelligence sharing among law enforcement. Although weapons and potential threats are uncovered almost every day by the TSA, we have been fortunate not to have experienced another major terrorism incident in recent years in the transportation arena.

The new warnings about new bombing capabilities being developed by terrorists are a signal that we cannot be complacent and that our own security capabilities must be constantly upgraded against growing and dangerous malicious intent.

The DHS, through the Transportation Security Lab and the Science and Technology Directorate, are dedicated to working together in research and development to ensure that a new generation of technology is incorporated into our transportation security posture. The DHS is pursuing layered defenses at airports and train stations, often referred to as “the checkpoint of the future,” that will help prevent attacks.

The current and future technology used for transportation security is varied and most effective when deployed in a layered, holistic approach. It involves people, process, training and the deployment of the latest and greatest technology.

The first task is to use data analytics to check no-fly lists, irregular activities and garner intelligence on passengers. The growth in this area has been exponential in the past few years, with the corresponding innovations in computation and software applications. A next important step is perimeter security that utilizes license-plate readers upon entering an airport or transportation hub, or when you enter a parking garage. The perimeter part of the layered defense includes high-definition cameras with facial recognition software to monitor known terrorists and suspicious activities.

Passenger and luggage screening are paramount to detecting explosives, which is not always an easy task, as evidenced by the attempts of the “Underwear Bomber” and the “Shoe Bomber” to bring down airliners a few years back.

New screening tactics (pre-checks) and technology have helped close the gap. Baggage scanners now have technology that provides for automated detection of explosives with sophisticated algorithms and sensors. New trace-detection bomb detection machines, combined with X-rays, and the latest versions of people-screening machines that use backscatter imaging (an X-ray that detects the radiation that reflects from the target) make it much more difficult for a terrorist to conceal explosives.

In the future, biometric security such as iris and fingerprint scanners can be added as another layer of insurance, especially for those passengers traveling with electronic tickets. Also, scientists are working on “human factor” technologies that analyze threats from monitoring physiological measurements such as breathing rates, heartbeats, perspiration and blink rates that may help spot and uncover terrorists.

Commercial and privacy concerns for passengers have to be balanced with new security implementations. Technology, combined with ergonomic screening processes, is making it easier to pass rapidly through security checkpoints. Privacy is still a balancing act, and it is difficult to determine how much scrutiny is really enough to prevent the possible loss of lives.

The threat is now heightened, and for the DHS, the intelligence community and law enforcement, the need to develop and deploy new tools and technology to prevent future terror incidents will never wane.

Brooks serves as vice president and client executive for the DHS at Xerox. Previously, he served in government at the DHS as the first director of legislative affairs for the science and technology directorate. Follow him @ChuckDBrooks on Twitter and on LinkedIn at

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