Big Data: aiding aviation and border security

By Omer Laviv

Two major developments have the potential to completely change the nature of aviation security in the 21st century: globalisation and the information revolution. Both criminal and terrorist organisations are transcending national boundaries, and may carry out attacks at any location, extending the battlefield to the whole world.

At the same time, the free flow of information in an age of internet and mobile communications allows even small groups of perpetrators to plan and coordinate operations online, at a minimal risk of discovery. Israelis witnessed a horrifying example of the impact of globalised terrorism on 30th May 1972, when Kozo Okamoto, along with two other Japanese members of the radical leftish Japanese Red Army, landed at Lod Airport on Air France Flight 132 from Paris. They went to the passenger baggage carousel, whipped out Kalashnikov rifles and hand grenades from their luggage, and began shooting. They were able to murder twenty-six people (17 of whom were Puerto Rican pilgrims) and to wound nearly 80 more. One of the terrorists killed his comrade and then committed suicide while Kozo Okamoto, who survived, was convicted and imprisoned for life in Israel. (He was actually released in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange with Palestinian militant factions for captive Israeli soldiers). It was claimed that the Japanese Red Army executed the attack to aid the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), hoping that in exchange, the PFLP would execute terror attacks on Japanese soil.

The combination of globalisation and the information revolution means that aviation security can no longer afford to see itself as the first line of defence in the country’s security effort. Rather, it should become the point where data from different sources converge to identify the few malefactors among the multitudes entering and leaving the country. As a consequence, intelligence forces are called upon to provide pin-point passenger alerts to customs and border police, as well as to airport security organisations, leading to the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators.

The need for early warning is also fuelled by the growing volume of world travel, and the need to handle increasingly more passengers on often shrinking budgets. There is constant pressure to expedite security controls in order to support the vital economic activities of trade and tourism, which should be balanced against the potential damage to these same sectors through security incidents, terrorist attacks and plain old crime.

Current technology and means of surveillance assist the security effort by providing an unprecedented amount of information about possible suspects. Data sources may include anything from a handshake caught on CCTV to social media comments. In fact, analyst firm IDC has predicted that, “total data will grow by 50 times by 2020 and unstructured data (video, email, files) will account for 90% of this data stream”. Yet the very wealth of information makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees and trace patterns of malicious intent among the multitude of normal behaviours and transactions.

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