Airport security in the digital age

Airport security has grown to encompass more than crude metal detectors and pat downs. Digital Barriers is working with airports worldwide on a new form of safety.

Airport security

Security is everywhere in an airport. Passengers rightly assume – and understand why – it will take time to pass through each checkpoint. As technology is increasingly used by those who wish to cause harm or engage in smuggling, it falls on airports and governments to consider how they can better protect the public in uncertain times.

This means that security needs to evolve to meet the demands of a new world and the threats that exist in the 21st century.

“The key in airports is speeding up the throughput but not compromising security,” says Kevin Gramer, vice president of commercial sales at Digital Barriers, a company that specialises in creating new technology for the global surveillance, security and safety markets.

“Airports have a significant challenge,” he continues. “They have to be right 100% of time, whereas the adversaries, the bad guys, only have to be right once.”

It’s a sobering thought. So how can technology help the good guys stay one step ahead?

Gary Peters: There is considerable concern when it comes to global security and the threat of terrorism. How important is technology in protecting people within the airport environment?

Kevin Gramer: I think it's a tool; no one can really replace the human element, but the tools, the technology, can enhance the capabilities. Given the state of where we are now and the changing threat... [it is about] evolving to meet and adapt to the threat. I think ten years ago, our technology probably wouldn't be thought of, but today as the threat evolves, we need to stay with it, or ahead of it.

GP: But will the more traditional means of detection remain for the foreseeable future?

KG: In my opinion, yes. Technology can increase the layers of security and push the threat further away. The key in airports is speeding up the throughput but not compromising security.

GP: Digital Barriers has developed ThruVis, a passive people-screening camera. Can you explain how this works?

KG: Let’s look at this from a layman's point of view. People often confuse us with technology that radiates energy. When you go into an airport, you're used to passing through a big machine that scans you. They are ‘active’, with some level of radiating technology.

Ours uses terahertz millimetre technology to look at the energy that is being emitted from your body, so we can detect things that a metal detector cannot. Obviously it can detect metal, but also liquids and weapons. We can see that even under multiple layers of clothing.

We're not using any radiation, merely measuring the energy and things that are blocking that energy from the body.

There are other parts of this, too, including employee screening, which is something we're seeing a lot of interest in. And also contraband; are people carrying something they shouldn't be?

GP: Where are the cameras placed? Are they visible to passengers?

KG: It's really on a case-by-case basis. They can be deployed in a, shall we say, disruptive way, where it appears that something is going on. But, also overhead, looking down, and also deployed covertly, within the infrastructure, to the point where people do not realise they are being scanned.

This is stand-off. It can be used at the same time as someone is passing through a metal detector. ThruVis has been around for a while. Our current generation is about a year old.

GP: Can the tech remove some of the annoyances felt by passengers when moving through an airport?

KG: Absolutely. Something we often talk about is the ‘virtual pat down scenario’. So, we can find something without the need for a physical pat down.

There are efforts to improve the throughput of people without damaging security. We can enhance that, by identifying threats before they get to security. When someone walks through a metal detector, it detects metal. But, if they have powders or other substances, in theory they could make it through. But we can find that.

GP: When ThruVis detects something, what happens next?

KG: It could be done in multiple ways. ThruVis is typically used where there is an operator, similar to an airport X-ray operator where someone is there watching, looking for a threat. We can do that with someone sitting there looking at the screen, but because it’s mobile we can move around the airport, really anywhere. We can also be deployed in a fixed environment, where there's a remote operator.

GP: What about the privacy of the passenger?

KG: Well, our technology is being used in the general airport environment. But, we don't show any anatomical detail. Instead we only measure the things that are blocking the energy coming from your body. On the privacy standpoint, I think we're in a very good place.

GP: You also have technology for site and perimeter security. How does that work?

KG: We have something called Safezone, which can be used for a number of scenarios. So, you basically block off an area and say 'I want to detect if anyone is coming into this area'. We can monitor that.

GP: Does using more technology open up the debate about how it could be compromised by hackers?

KG: That's a good question and one we get asked all the time. Can our technology be hacked? Could someone disable or disrupt it? I would say to that, we have all of the latest cyber security built in.

I think the industry understands [the need to consider cyber threats] and on the whole, I think it is doing a pretty good job.

GP: As you work across different countries, with different cultures, working practices, and so on, do you ever find any resistance to what you’re trying to do?

KG: All airports have different threat levels, but they are all looking for ways to improve security. I think they need technology that is proven. Sometimes people rush in the wake of an event to add different layers of security. You really do have to adapt to the local culture and laws.

GP: How challenging is it to design something that can handle large numbers of people?

KG: Everything that we do is tested from a throughput angle. It's about a balance. Since we're not the primary means of security, there may be others things that are slowing the process down.

GP: What are your plans for the future?

KG: We have some plans that will provide additional levels of detection. We are going to be working on our facial recognition development, and I think this is key. For this we can use existing cameras in the airport. If you have a known watch list, facial recognition is a very powerful asset.

There's also baggage claim theft. Often, this is the same group of people, so facial recognition can alert you when these people pass though the airport.