Security fears bring more IT to the airport

OTTAWA – Parked at the doors of the elegant Brookstreet Resort here, there is a large and menacing-looking GRUNT. Although it shares the same roles, the GRUNT is not some low-level army officer – it is a highly sophisticated robot whose job it is to patrol and protect and to share all the information it is acquiring with its team members.

Also known as GRound UNiT and developed by Ottawa-based Frontline Robotics, the robot is on display at the first Canadian Aviation Security Conference and will soon be on active duty in a pilot project at the Ottawa airport.

And while not all airports will rush to embrace the idea of a posse of robots protecting their perimeters, it’s likely that any technology that promises to increase safety while reducing the escalating frustrations over long lineups and bottlenecks will at least get a second look, executives said.

“Passengers are becoming more and more frustrated” with security measures that vary from airport to airport, said Robert Milton, president of Air Canada. The prohibited items list varies from country to country, for one thing, he said.

The conference, which has dozen or so vendors displaying their wares, has brought in security experts from as far as Israel and the U.K. to talk about the technologies and techniques currently being deployed to counter the threat of terrorism.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) demonstrated this week two pieces of software it is using to train airport screening officers. One, the threat image projection system, randomly projects images of dangerous items such as guns and explosives onto the X-ray images of real baggage, just to keep officers on their toes. X-ray Tutor, another program, is a video-game-like tool that is being used to train officers to recognize weapons and explosive devices in baggage in various positions.

In an interview with TIG, Rafi Sela, president of AR Challenges, a consultancy with offices in the U.S. and Israel, said Israeli firms have developed a number of innovative security technologies. BellMetrix Systems Inc., for example, has designed a voice-over IP-based integrated mesh platform to screen travellers from the minute they arrive at the airport to the time they get on their flights. Gaia Sense has developed “smart locks” that monitor cargo for changes such as intrusion attempts, and another Israeli firm, Bsecure, has created what it says are tamper-resistant, copy-proof identity cards by metallizing plastic cards.

And while most speakers agreed on the need to increase security while protecting privacy, not everyone agreed on the best approach to achieving those goals.

“We could have safe flights if people flew naked and their cargo was sent a day late,” said Norm Inkster, a former commissioner to the RCMP who is now a managing director in the Toronto office of Navigant Consulting‘s litigations and investigations practice. “It depends on how much we’re prepared to accept.”

Inkster said he believes the public will increasingly accept the use of biometrics and surveillance cameras in exchange for the promise of greater security.

But, he said, “We need to balance the rights of the individual with the need to stop terrorists.” The government should not “take advantage” of private information under the guise of security, he added.

While the academics who spoke at the event all sounded the alarm over their perceptions of the erosion of privacy in the post-9/11 world, most of the speakers said they were more concerned about a reliance on security technology and practices that don’t guarantee flier safety.

Benjamin Muller, a professor from the University of Ottawa, said the development of enormous databases to enforce no-fly lists or to create frequent flyer programs that allow passengers who have registered their biometrics and passed a security clearance to bypass customs could create bigger problems than they solve.

“Is it solving the lessons from 9/11 or is it transferring the problem?” he asked, noting that several of the 9/11 hijackers had no criminal backgrounds and could probably have passed a security clearance. “Are we just taking the individuals who were predictable in the first place out of the equation?”

Biometrics scanners that read everything from your ear shape to your signature to your gait and even your DNA are becoming increasingly reliable, but they’re not yet entirely foolproof, said Elia Zureik, a Queen’s University professor. “If the accuracy rate is 99.99 per cent, then there is a .01 inaccuracy rate,” he said. That means at an airport like Heathrow in London where one million people are in transit every week, there will be 1,000 false identities. “It takes a lot of time to investigate people,” he said. “So you have to do it right and you have to be aware of the social consequences of the technologies.”

Getting it wrong can have more than irritate people, though, noted Mike Skrobica, vice-president, industry and monetary affairs at the Air Transport Association of Canada.

Skrobica referred to triacetone triperoxide, which has been nicknamed “Mother of Satan” due to its volatility.

“We can detect it but we don’t do a great job,” he said. “We need to screen the passengers themselves for explosives.”

The Aviation Security Conference wrapped up Thursday. For more coverage of emerging technologies in the transportation sector, please see the May/June issue of Technology in Government.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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