Thursday, August 25, 2011

Statistical Model in Airports Unlikely to Catch Terrorists

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

Engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas have created a statistical model of the daily operations of general aviation airports in order to help show unusual activity that could suggest a security threat, according to a recent report.

The model is based on factors such as annual number of landings and takeoffs; total number of planes based at an airport; whether an airport has a traffic-control tower, and other detailed data.

“We want to understand the variation associated with usual general-aviation activity and operations, so unusual activity can be detected, analyzed and resolved,” said Justin Chimka, associate professor of industrial engineering and a researcher at the rural transportation center.

Catching potential terrorists by monitoring thousands of airport activities and then looking for blips from an artificial “norm” is like discovering a rash on your body (statistically abnormal), then trying to discover its origin, knowing full well that it may have originated from dozens of potential sources.

Anyone familiar with airport operations and the thousands of potential sources for “abnormal activities” will realize that the tunnel vision being promoted by the research supported by the DHS (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) to monitor airport security may look great on colored graphs (or monitors) but is unlikely to catch the terrorists until it’s too late.

The tunnel vision promoted by a stand-alone engineering or technological approach is simply missing the boat.

As airports are complex social organizations where employees like ourselves are trying their best to maintain continuity of operations in the face of potential security threats, the decisions we make – be they facing passengers or checking suppliers of services – are not based on statistical abnormalities but on those good ole-fashioned human qualities gained through training, experience, and to some extent, gut feelings.

Technology is a tool to help make those decisions, but we have enough research evidence to show that trusting technology and bending the rules are a critical part of the security decision-making process: a very human characteristic.

So, perhaps it may be a good time to start refocusing on people and not on a virtual world of statistical devices in catching the bad guys.

* The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Watching security at the London olympics through an airport prism

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

According to an initial report in The Daily Mail, London Olympic Committee security personnel appear to have taken a page out of airport security protocol in order to smoothly move the tens of thousands of spectators, employees, volunteers, athletes and reporters into the main stadium to watch world records being broken.

Twelve thousand police, 15,000 private security personnel and thousands of CCTV cameras, screeners and scanners will be in place in order screen those entering the stadium, assuring coordinated communications among everyone involved. It is estimated that it will take only 20 minutes to navigate the security checks.

If airport security systems are to act as the framework for the London Olympics, it would be wise for the Olympic Games’ security advisors to look very carefully at some of the current research being generated on airport security.

What has been found is a real eye opener: about a third of security employees regularly bend and even break the rules and procedures when necessary. Two findings are of interest – decisions are not made by individuals but as a group process and communications between security employees run along a parallel informal social network rather than the typical control command chain!

Where does this leave us? If indeed security at the London Olympics will mimic airport security, such non-procedural behaviors must be accounted for or we can expect the same dissatisfaction exhibited by passengers who prefer alternatives to flying when possible.

The London olympic stadium 2012
Security advisors and London police should be thinking of alternative ways to better match the reality of “security-spectator” interaction, something the BEMOSA project has already looked into and is generating some unique solutions.

So, potential Olympic Games goers, be prepared to remove your shoes, belts and get caught up in some nasty pushing matches and frustrating waits, but don’t be so sure you will catch the game!

* The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).