Trusted Travellers: there’s no such thing

by Philip Baum, Editor, Aviation Security International

Ask most Airport Security Managers what keeps them awake at night and they are prone to respond “the insider threat”. There is a well-founded concern that those we employ to clean our aircraft, cater our flights, handle our baggage, secure our perimeters or fly our airlines may well turn out to be the very people who target our industry. So, despite all the expenditure on creating the illusion of security with sophisticated technologies deployed to detect picograms of explosives in passengers’ bags, we remain vulnerable to an attack perpetrated by those who know how to bypass the checkpoint.

Addressing the insider threat is no easy task. Identifying ‘cleanskins’, devoid of any criminal record, in an environment where there is a high staff turnover rate, a higher than average number of overseas workers with limited background checks and where speed is the nature of the game, is almost entirely dependent upon other employees reporting concerns about their colleagues. Indeed, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that, once they have an airport pass or ID in hand, an airport employee is deemed to be ‘trusted’. The degree of that ‘trust’ varies globally, with most developed nations, with the notable exception of the United States, recognising that even staff require screening (body and belongings) prior to accessing security restricted areas.

For all persons cleared to work airside, we have performed an abundance of checks…or should have! Not only the security checks in order to be cleared to be issued with a pass, but also pre-employment reference checks. In other words, we have a significant amount of data and, in all cases, there will have been at least one, and probably more, face-to-face interview. And yet, despite this, we fear the insider threat.

There would be nothing new about an insider targeting an airline. It was on 11th April 1955 when an Air India flight was destroyed en route from Hong Kong to Jakarta after an aircraft cleaner, by the name of Chow-Tse Ming, infiltrated a device on board in an attempt to assassinate the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. All souls on board were lost, yet Zhou Enlai had never boarded the flight.

More recently, there have been a number of plots involving insiders, including one by a former cargo handler against fuel farms and pipelines at New York’s JFK in 2007 and another by a call centre technician, Rajib Karim, against British Airways a year later. Last year, an avionics technician by the name of Terry Lee Loewen demonstrated a willingness to drive a vehicle which he believed to be laden with explosives into Mid Continent’s Airport in Wichita.

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