High-Tech Padlocks: key to protecting the perimeter

When it comes to security, an airport’s perimeter can be its weakest link. That’s because perimeter breaches are not only difficult to detect, they are also difficult to prevent. This is especially true when it comes to airfield crash gates and pedestrian access points to secure facilities, such as fuel farms and cargo facilities, where the traditional lock and key is all that protects unauthorised access. Yet even the padlock industry has become more technologically savvy and, as Ryan Baer explains, mechanical solutions are now being replaced by electronic solutions.

According to Congressman Bill Keating, a ranking member of the U.S. House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, more than 1,300 perimeter breaches occurred at U.S. airports during the 10-year period between March 2002 and March 2012. What is going on? Are these security breaches due to ineffective security measures or because criminals have gotten smarter? The answer – to no one’s surprise – is both.

The Associated Press (AP) recently released a study that examined security at 31 of the largest U.S. airports. The study pinpointed where security is the weakest – the perimeter – and detailed why security measures at those openings are so ineffective. As a result of this study, some airports have implemented new security measures, but the majority of airports are still at risk. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you do not always need to spend $200 million per year on perimeter security like Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. Sometimes, all it takes is an enhancement to your current programme such as upgrading gate locks with new technology. Upgrades make it possible to significantly improve perimeter security without a large investment or by using outside resources.

The airport security team at every airport, large or small, has an immense responsibility: prevent and detect breaches and limit damage. Some airports have the added benefit of a natural barrier around the perimeter such as water, snow banks or rocks to prevent breaches. To secure openings, man-made barriers such as walls, fencing, barbed wire and locks are used most prominently. Some barriers work, some don’t. According to the AP, “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent since the 9/11 attacks to upgrade fencing, cameras and other detection technology along airport perimeters. Many have dozens of miles of fencing, but not all of that is frequently patrolled or always in view of security cameras.”

Think about your own airport’s perimeter. How secure is each locked opening and especially the pedestrian gates? More than likely, the pedestrian gates are secured with padlocks. If you are using off-the-shelf padlocks, this may be a good time to rethink your strategy. Anyone with a key can gain access, and keys get lost, stolen or duplicated all the time. And what about the padlock itself – what is it made of and how easily will it open when limited force is applied?

Padlocks are made from various materials, but most use brass or stainless steel which vary in grade and thickness. Off-the-shelf padlocks use less dense metals and thinner components so that they cost less, but they sure do not hold up well to physical attacks like cutting, sawing, prying, drilling or grinding. Take a look at some of the outstanding padlock attack videos on YouTube and you will get an idea of how easy – or how difficult – it is to gain entry to an airport’s sensitive areas.

Let’s review the types of padlocks available and how padlock selection could affect your ability to prevent unauthorised access.

There are three main padlock types – combination, mechanical and electronic. The weakest of the three is the combination padlock with a dial. You will rarely see this lock being used on airport perimeters. Combination numbers can be overseen or shared too easily, and believe it or not, it is not uncommon to see PIN codes or combinations written in door jams or some place near the opening.

By far, the most commonly used padlock is the mechanical, but it too has drawbacks. Mechanical keys work continually for every lock they are keyed to and over time, the security protection eventually erodes. That is because keys get lost, stolen or misplaced, making it necessary every so often to rekey or replace the cylinders and reissue new keys. It is critically important for security administrators to have an effective key control policy in place. Accountability must be maintained with records of who has keys to which locks. Just as important, there should be a strategy to protect against key duplication.