This past week, a 15-year-old runaway scaled a fence at San Jose International Airport (SJC), and through the dark of night made his way onto the tarmac, where he stowed away in the wheel well of a Boeing 767 bound for Maui, Hawaii.
While the teen had no malicious intent,the incident again brought the issue of airport security to the forefront.
What can this incident teach us about physical security?
First, barbed wire fences, police, and video cameras are not enough to prevent perimeter breaches. In many ways, it is a question of scale. Airports are typically very large, with a lot of area and a long perimeter to cover. Denver International Airport covers 53 square miles in area, JFK 9 square miles, and La Guardia “only” one square mile. With such large footprints, it is impractical to have guards patrolling every square foot of the perimeter and grounds. Airports are mostly empty space, with pockets of high value assets that need to be protected.
Surveillances video is a great tool for spotting intruders, but only if someone is watching. Such large facilities need a lot of cameras, and it is impossible to watch every camera every second. In fact, with hundreds of cameras, the chances that a human guard will notice a breach in real-time is close to none.
For example, there are 200 security cameras at SJC and in last week’s incident, they did in fact clearly capture the 15-year-old stowaway crossing the tarmac and climbing into the wheel well of the 767 jet. But it wasn’t until he was found in Hawaii a day later that anyone looked at the footage. There was a total lack of awareness that the airport’s perimeter had even been breached until well after the flight had landed.
Airports can deploy video analytics software to help monitor video and automatically detect suspicious activity. When the software detects a potential breach, it sounds an alarm, alerting security staff that there is a situation worth examining. However, false alarms are a common problem, with each sensor easily generating more than 10 false alarms every day. This might cause those responsible for monitoring the sensors to tend to ignore the alerts, which they might assume to be false.
And this brings me to my next point – no one sensor or security measure is enough. Rather, airports need to take a layered approach to physical security, tying different sensors into an integrated solution that can reduce false alarms while enhancing situational awareness. While a single alert could be a false alarm, it’s highly likely that two sensor alerts triggered in short succession (for example a Perimeter Intrusion Detection alert and a fence shake detector), along with say, a camera detecting movement, are indicators of a real threat.
In fact, Miami International Airport (MIA) has come up with a creative solution to detect runway incursion breaches. This layered approach used technologies that the airport already had available, such as tower radar, video management and video cameras, along with newly purchased ground radar, vehicle GPS tracking, and various low light/fixed thermal/PTZ tracking cameras.
What makes the MIA approach unique is that it uses the NICE Situator physical security information management (PSIM) solution to tie all these pieces together to ensure security of the airfield operations area. MIA’s integrated system can detect unidentified people, vehicles, and aircraft on runways and taxiways that may pose a safety problem or a threat, automatically sending information to airport first responders if needed.
The future of airport perimeter security
Standards for airport perimeter security are set by the TSA, but the implementation is left up to individual airports, so how perimeter security is enforced can and does vary from airport to airport. A bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) seeks toestablish an advisory committee within the TSA that would be dedicated to airport perimeter security. Swalwell also sent aletter to the Government Accountability Office on April 22nd asking the GAO to re-assess airport perimeter security in light of the recent breach.
In atweet last week, Swalwell drew attention to the issue, writing, “I have long been concerned about security at our airport perimeters. #Stowaway teen demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.”
We’ll see if this latest airport perimeter breach prompts the Senate to act on Swalwell’s bill. We’ll also keep an eye on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday about theTSA’s plans to adapt to new airport security threats.
Regardless of the outcome, airports shouldn’t sit idle waiting for a decision. They should heed the warning revealed by this incident and reevaluate their perimeter security measures and procedures now to prevent other, potentially more serious breaches from occurring.