Checkpoint Design: facilitating threat identification

Checkpoint Design: facilitating threat identification

Airport security checkpoint design has been evolving for decades. In the United States and Europe, checkpoints were adapted to respond to new threats and incidents; the Lockerbie bombing, the liquid bomb plot, Richard Reid’s shoe bomb attempt, and the more recent landside attacks in Brussels and Istanbul. As aviation security organisations look to the future, checkpoint designs are being enhanced to protect against kinetic attacks directed at the checkpoints themselves and to incorporate new technologies, like facial recognition and AI, to supplement existing policies and identify threats faster than ever before. Stephen Felty analyses this ever-evolving discipline and reveals some innovations for the next phase of checkpoint security.

The ongoing threat of terrorism, along with innovations in technology, policy and design principles, are changing airport security checkpoints across the globe. Through the decades, checkpoints have evolved in tandem with these variables and have adapted into sophisticated systems for threat detection. Facial recognition technology, CT scanning, risk-based security, and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) are solutions and principles being deployed at checkpoints across North America and Europe.

History of Checkpoint Design

After the attacks on 11 September, 2001, airport security checkpoints underwent major overhauls across the globe. In the United States, they were federalised as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) of 2001. This led to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and required all airport screening to be completed by federal officials. It also significantly expanded the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) to put a greater number of air marshals on aircraft.1

Yet, continued attempts to target aviation by terrorists led to continued evolution in aviation security checkpoints. The 2001 Richard Reid shoe bomb attack led to the removal of shoes during the screening process; the 2004 Madrid train bombings led to the creation of the armed Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response teams (VIPR); the 2006 liquids bomb plot led to, initially, a full liquids ban that was followed by size and quantity restrictions for liquid carry-ons, and the 2009 underwear bomb plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab led to the introduction of advanced imaging technology (body scanners). After nearly two decades of attempting to bring down western aircraft, terrorist organisations shifted their tactics, and started targeting the airports themselves. This allowed the perpetrators to avoid going through security checkpoints and, in doing so, face possible detection. They began to focus their attacks on terminal concourses, check-in zones and security queues, thereby exposing a vulnerability of the aviation enterprise and leading to an increased security focus on the checkpoints themselves and other landside locations.2

The 2016 terrorist attacks at J.K. Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and Brussels International Airport in Belgium overwhelmed western aviation security by targeting the landside components of the airport terminals. These incidents resulted in the deaths of 45 people in Istanbul, 32 people in Brussels, and the injuries of hundreds more. Billions of dollars of economic losses resulted from physical damage, tax revenue loss, and reduced economic activity.3

A security checkpoint at Istanbul's old Ataturk Airport
A security checkpoint at Istanbul’s old Ataturk Airport

After these attacks, aviation security re-evaluated its approach to securing airport public areas and checkpoints. It began to view checkpoints as soft targets that needed to be hardened. Recent intelligence suggests terrorist organisations intend to continue attacking airport and airline personnel using the assistance of industry insiders. An inter-European analysis of Facebook accounts discovered that airport employees from multiple countries had posted Islamist Jihadist content on their profiles. Further analysis revealed that one of the individuals who attacked Brussels airport had worked there for more than five years. The 2016 bomb attack on Daallo Airlines in Somalia involved an employee who helped smuggle a bomb, which was later detonated inflight, concealed within a laptop through the checkpoint – a powerful example of the insider threat faced by airports and airlines.4

The Future of Checkpoint Design

The future of checkpoint design has three major facets for consideration: overcoming the challenge of being a soft target, using innovative technology to identify threats, and efficiency of screening considerations.

Checkpoints as a Soft Target

Hardening security checkpoints and landside sections of airports became a priority after multiple attacks on airport checkpoints and check-in areas in Brussels, Istanbul, Fort Lauderdale, and Glasgow revealed serious security shortcomings. Security was pushed beyond the checkpoints to include the public areas of airports.5

One way that the U.S. and countries throughout Europe are hardening checkpoints at airports is by implementing crime prevention through environmental design (CPED), which seeks to reduce the opportunities for crime to be perpetrated in a location through three main concepts: organised, natural and mechanical features. Organised features include considerations such as how security personnel conduct themselves. In the U.S. for example, the TSA has partnered with local law enforcement and airport security officials to do more patrols and insider threat screening of employees. Natural features, such as the ways in which a terminal’s layout might influence human behaviour, have been the subject of a lot of study and investment in the E.U. Finally, mechanical features, such as security technology and lighting have been strategically developed to increase the potential for security observations beyond the checkpoints and into the public areas of airports. Locations that utilise bomb-resistant glass, closed circuit television (CCTV), biometric access control, motion detection cameras, chemical and biological sniffers, and virtual fences have higher levels of security than those locations that use more traditional screening checkpoint equipment.6 The UK, by combining security screening and police presence in the landside area, has more closely integrated its aviation and public area security, has more authority and thus has had greater success in securing its checkpoints than the United States.7 Belgium, too, has had success in hardening checkpoints since the 2016 attacks at Brussels airport. In particular, its crowd protection strategies meet the European Union (EU) security standards, which grant it authorities that TSA cannot exercise in its more limited jurisdiction. TSA, for example, has no jurisdiction beyond administrative searches within its checkpoints and has no direct authority with regards to protecting the queuing areas. In an innovative response, TSA has more closely followed the UK model, in which aviation security manages security at the checkpoint while law enforcement and the airport secure the landside.8

Identifying Threats with Innovative Technology

The second consideration is identifying threats to aviation security with innovative new technologies. In 2015, the TSA and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) partnered in launching a programme that uses emergent facial recognition technology to detect passengers attempting to use fake identification, as well as individuals on terrorist watchlists, as they approach security checkpoints. TSA and CBP have used this as part of TSA’s Risk Based Security (RBS) programme to enable low-risk passengers to receive faster and less intrusive security clearance while allowing a greater allocation of resources to be invested in higher risk passengers.9 CBP has even started using facial recognition technology at temporary checkpoints near boarding gates to screen for individuals using fraudulent documents, primarily among individuals who have outstayed their visas.10

Additionally, TSA has begun investing in computed tomography (CT) technology, similar to that used in the medical field. This technology, long used for screening checked luggage, uses complex algorithms to allow security officers to detect explosives, firearms, and other threats by creating a three-dimensional image that can be manipulated 360 degrees. TSA is currently piloting this technology for carry-on baggage screening at 17 of the largest airports in the United States.11

Efficiency Considerations

When considering the efficiency of security checkpoints, it is important to note how much air travel was increasing globally before the COVID outbreak, and thereby putting a growing strain on existing aviation security organisations – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, TSA screened over 2.25 million passengers per day12. TSA responded to this increase by adapting screening checkpoint designs and processes from the U.K., such as remote X-ray screening (sometimes referred to as centralised image processing), which allows screening personnel to analyse images away from the checkpoint, where they face fewer distractions and can therefore dramatically increase throughput per-hour. The organisation is also adding biometric identity verification to speed up document checking, often a chokepoint at any security checkpoint.

Immigration control agencies, such as in Israel, have been using biometrics to detect passengers attempting to use fake identification for many years. Biometrics will play an increasingly important role in airport security in the future.
Immigration control agencies, such as in Israel, have been using biometrics to detect passengers attempting to use fake identification for many years. Biometrics will play an increasingly important role in airport security in the future.

Implications for Scholars and Practitioners

In order to overcome the dynamic nature of aviation terrorism, checkpoint security teams are implementing policies and partnerships that harden security checkpoints. Practitioners and engineers are adapting new technologies and innovative processes to detect the latest threats to aviation. Members of the aviation security enterprise and their partners are also becoming more efficient in order to overcome funding challenges and increase passenger throughput.

As potential terrorists return from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, they bring with them knowledge of weaponry and explosives that they learned in combat. The recent successes of the landside attacks in Brussels and Istanbul may lead to further attacks. Returning foreign fighters aside, the impact of the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe is compounded by the Schengen Agreement, which means that once inside the European Union (EU), terrorists can move between most other EU member states undetected. Furthermore, with airports often providing employment to low-paid employees in occupations with high staff turnover rates, therefore often attracting migrant settlers, additional screening needs to be carried out on airport employees to address the insider threat. In 2015, France revoked the security clearances of over 70 employees at a Paris airport after they were found to have been radicalised, underscoring the risk that western aviation targets face.13 Increased use of biometrics to confirm the identities of airport employees and CT scanning of their accessible property as part of insider threat countermeasures are proven methods of detecting threats by insiders.14

Western European countries like Belgium and the U.K. have mitigated the vulnerability of the public sphere of airports by aggressively applying design changes and increasing security presence. Canine detection units are one form of effective deterrent but costly to maintain. A major alternative used throughout Western Europe is investing in more physical security in security checkpoints and introducing principles of environmental design, which reduce risk to security personnel and passengers. By implementing CPTED at high risk funnel-points, checkpoint security specialists can reduce both the risk to lives and the cost of hardening checkpoints.15

In the US, combining risk-based principles with biometrics like facial recognition technology allows security specialists to push the boundaries of security beyond sterile areas into public zones, increase the speed at which passengers are processed and focus resources on individuals posing the highest threats.

Conclusions

Aviation security checkpoint designs have historically evolved as new threats emerged, terrorist attacks occurred, or as pressures for efficiency arose. The ongoing nature of these variables means that checkpoints will continue to evolve. Using emergent technologies such as facial recognition and CT scanning, checkpoints are able to detect threats more effectively and efficiently than ever before. Using the principles of risk-based security, security enterprises are able to increase the focus of their checkpoints on current threats while minimising the time spent screening everyone else. Finally, the principle of crime prevention through environment design is assisting in hardening checkpoints and decreasing the vulnerability of soft targets in airports. The combination of technology, innovative policy, and design are making checkpoints more effective and efficient than ever before. Aviation security operations around the world have much to gain by cross-pollinating their checkpoint security and safeguarding the future of air transportation.


Stephen Felty

Stephen Felty is an assistant federal security director for TSA. He is responsible for aviation security operations at multiple airports across the state of New Mexico. He has experience in operations management, programme management, and employee relations projects. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California, where his research focused on identity conflicts and the motivations for terrorism and was awarded the prestigious Butch Straub Award for Academic Leadership. He also holds an MPA and a Bachelor’s Degree in international politics from Penn State University.


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