Can technology give us secure skies?

A few years ago, most Canadians would have laughed at the idea of terrorism on Canadian soil. But recent events have caused governments around the world — including our own — to step up security efforts in public places, such as airports and border crossings. In Canada, the federal government has

allocated $79 million for new equipment and supporting activities at Canadian airports.

After the 1996 downing of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., the cause of which has not yet been determined, the Gore Commission was established in the U.S. It suggested there was readily available technology that could be deployed, such as trace detection, to improve security in airports. “That incident, combined with the infamous terrorist Ramsey Yousef’s plot to down 12 American jumbo jet airlines over the Pacific on the same day, expedited the deployment of trace detectors to American airports,” says Jim Bergen, a spokesperson for GE Ion Track, which specializes in explosives detection systems (EDS). “Additional terrorist attacks, including 9/11 and the Richard Reid incident, underscored the present threat that still exists.”

On Oct. 11, 2001, the Canadian government announced a range of initiatives to boost security at Canadian airports. These initiatives included $55.7 million for the purchase of advanced explosives detection systems and related state-of-the-art electronic security capabilities; $6 million for technology and information systems to better connect front-line officers to customs and law-enforcement data banks, both foreign and domestic; $6 million for ttehnology such as X-ray machines to facilitate better screening of goods; $8 million for new equipment such as scanning units for use by the RCMP at airports, border crossings, ports and offices for the electronic transmission and analysis of fingerprints, palm prints and photographs; and $1.5 million for the purchase of fingerprint card conversion technology to upgrade the Canadian Criminal Records System.

Canadian airports have been screening for explosives with explosive vapour detection equipment in concert with X-ray equipment, dogs and manual search procedures.

“The new advanced technology recently purchased by Transport Canada is the most up-to-date equipment available,” says Transport Canada spokesperson Bernard Pilon. “It’s capable of detecting a wide range of explosive substances.” However, for security reasons, he says he can’t discuss the specific details of the technology behind EDS — other than to say the federal government has committed more than $1 billion to buy, deploy, maintain and operate EDS in airports covering 99 per cent of all air travel in Canada.

“While some of the new EDS equipment will be apparent to the travelling public when it is deployed, there will also be EDS equipment that is not apparent,” he adds.

According to Pilon, explosives detection systems for the screening of carry-on luggage are now used at airports servicing 96 per cent of the Canadian flying public. In Canada, he says, significant progress has already been made in the program to deploy EDS equipment for the screening of checked baggage at Canadian airports. Completion of Canada’s major EDS implementation program for checked baggage is expected in advance of the international deadline of 2006.

Pilon says Transport Canada is currently using a number of methods to screen checked baggage, including passenger/baggage match, X-ray machines, trace equipment and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Trace detection is the process of sample collection and analysis of target substances that are not visible by other means, explains GE Ion Track’s Bergen. Trace detection technology works off the premise that when someone comes into contact with drugs or explosives, there is a high potential that microscopic traces are left behind, not only on the hands and clothes of the individual who handled such substances, but also every surface they subsequently touch.

“To give you an idea of the sensitivity of a trace detector, when I say ‘microscopic,’ I’m talking in terms of nanograms or less,” says Bergen. “A nanogram is one billionth of a gram. To put that measurement into more tangible terms, one billionth of a gram is equivalent to one second in a 34-year time span — or the concentration of one packet of sugar emptied into an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

Looking abroad

Federal funding was also provided for the analysis of advanced and evolving security practices and technologies for airport facilities. This includes analyzing practices in other countries and security environments, as well as examining various technologies such as biometrics (including facial recognition systems and iris scans) — and how best to apply such technologies within Canada.

Transport Canada and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) have been working together to evaluate advanced technology for passenger screening at airports. CATSA began operations on April 1, 2002, as a response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and reports to Parliament through the Minister of Transport. It has a budget of $1.9 million over five years for aviation security measures and is responsible for security screening at 89 major airports in Canada.

Canada, says Pilon, will be introducing biometric technology in the enhanced restricted area pass system which will significantly improve the security of passes themselves. The new pass system will introduce the use of biometrics to authenticate the identity of pass holders, he adds.

Renee Fairweather, a spokesperson for CATSA, would not comment in any further detail to TIG, as that would be “aiding and abetting” those who might cause security breaches, she said. She would only say CATSA has “deployed explosives detection equipment and checked baggage screening equipment as well as provided better training for screening passengers.”

But even these efforts are not enough, according to some critics. In its January 2003 report, The Myth of Security at Canada’s Airports, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence said the federal government and Canada’s air industry have focused on measures to toughen security that are highly visible to the public, but there has been little or no improvement to huge security gaps that persist behind the scenes. “Essentially, the committee sees the front door of air security as now being fairly well secured, with the side and back doors wide open,” says the report.

These security gaps include: inadequate background security checks of airport workers accessing aircraft; inadequate searches of outside workers accessing aircraft; a lack of almost any kind of security requirements for private aircraft and their passengers; a lack of security background checks on workers in buildings abutting to airports with access to vulnerable areas at airports; inadequate security boundaries between airport tarmacs and buildings adjacent to airport property; and a lack of any plan to train maintenance workers in the recognition of potentially dangerous persons, objects or substances.

“Electronic and biometric safeguards only constitute a small part of any strong security system,” says the report. “In fact, there is an argument to be made that over-dependence on technology can instill a false sense of confidence in any security system, because smart people will eventually figure out how to circumvent even the most sophisticated technology, which is why it keeps having to be upgraded.”

Screeners at security counters — in recent years contracted by airlines — have been undertrained, underpaid and forced to work long shifts at scanning monitors, “making them too bleary-eyed to be effective,” says the report. But the committee notes this area is improving. Since its takeover of pre-board screening from the airlines, CATSA has made training a top priority and introduced a multi-level training program for all screening officers.

Machines need human help

CATSA has taken the approach of integrating people and technology in its National Training and Certification Program that combines what it calls “blended learning and evidence-based training” to give security officers a continuous, interactive education on the latest detection techniques. Blended learning attempts to incorporate the most advantageous elements of a number of different training models, including computer and Web-based training. CATSA is also developing a smart card for all screening officers that will include relevant personal data, security clearance information, training and certification credentials and officer qualifications.

“We have implemented a rigorous screening program because we must always remember that as sophisticated as our detection equipment gets — and it is getting better every year — there will never be a time when machines alone will be able to handle airport security,” said CATSA chairman Brian Flemming at a conference in Greece in November. “No technological cocoon can guarantee our airport or airline safety and security. Our screening officers are critical to airline security and are one of the most important components in our line of defence.”

Still, there are a lot of security vendors out there — many of them vying for government business. The Canadian Advanced Technology Association’s Homeland Security Task Force was set up to provide a platform or “universal global watch” aimed at identifying and importing security best practices from around the world, as well as promoting Canadian companies within and outside of Canada. The Canadian Homeland Security Information Centre will promote, manage and provide access to a database of more than 700 advanced technology companies and system integrators that are involved with the advanced security industry and promote commercial opportunities, joint ventures and partnerships.

“More and more, how you handle cyber security is a critical factor in doing business internationally,” says John Reid, president of CATA. But you need integration in order to have international relationships — and within the Canadian government, he says, integration is weak.

Currently, under Treasury Board policy departments are responsible for protecting sensitive information and assets under their control. Transport Canada is responsible for ensuring the security of Canadian airports; for border crossings, it’s the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Reid says one of Canada’s biggest security challenges right now is public policy. Government departments are responsible for their own security, “with no effective communication between them,” he says. The budget structure within government needs to be changed to address this, he adds. But he believes change is coming with the new government under Paul Martin. “We have every reason to believe that an agency will be set up to solve this fragmentation,” he says.

Integration is key, not only between government departments, but between governments as well. If governments are using systems on either side of the border and they want those systems to integrate, Reid says, it makes sense to buy the same technology from the same company. One example of such a partnership is at the Canada-U.S. border. The NEXUS system jointly developed by Canada and the U.S. was designed to expedite border crossings by low-risk travellers. It relies on a backbone of Intermec Intellitag radio frequency identification, or RFID, and is being rolled out to every major trade corridor along the border. Users receive an identification card about the size of a credit card embedded with a computer chip and tiny RFID antenna. They drive through a special border crossing lane and swipe their card in a reader, which flashes their photo and information onto a computer screen inside the inspection booth. A typical inspection takes about five seconds. This helps cut crossing times for low-risk travellers and gives border agents more time to spend on higher-risk activities.

“RFID technology has been tested to over 99 per cent accuracy, meaning that when reading the data from the RFID chip, it is virtually error-free. How this data is used becomes a function of the overall system design,” says Dan Bodnar, director of automatic data capture and an Intermec RFID expert.

He says the rollout is expected to be complete in the next 12 to 18 months.

Canada signed a “smart border” declaration with the U.S. in 2001 to “safeguard the lawful flow of people and goods” across the Canada-U.S. border. The umbrella agreement includes a commitment to reciprocal investments by both countries in border infrastructure and new technologies to speed border processing.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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