Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Privatizing Security Police

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

Policy makers should know better than to use single examples to argue for or against a particular policy. For every positive example there can always be found a negative example – the “ABC” of basic introductory research methods! So why all the fuss over a CNN story about security employees making a mistake: one that admittedly takes down the airport for a few hours? There is obviously something brewing that has led to the outburst of why the the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should let go and allow more autonomy to local airports to hire their own security employees.

But what are the facts? From an organizational point of view, we are seeing competition over resources and control primarily generated by an organization’s need for survival and growth. The TSA, if it allows airports autonomy over their security, will simply become a funnel for budgets directly into the hands of local airport security managers. They may still determine safety and security standards but the consequence will be a radical downsizing and loss of political power.

On the other hand, the airports will be free to hire and train security employees according to their own views of how security should be implemented. Autonomy in this case brings with it greater control over the security environment and less dependence on external constraints.

Sounds good, but there is a BIG catch! It is probably irrelevant who does the hiring and training as the “proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and the BEMOSA project has shown that the key to enhanced security has to do with the employees. Utilizing the same training and procurement systems for technology will not eradicate the facts of life in airport security. There will continue to be social behavior that supports up to a third of the employees bending the rules and protocols; there is even a greater proportion that mistrusts the technology or the overwhelming decisions made on the basis of group think and not individuals.

So, all the fuss about control over airport security is really a smokescreen for the more generic problems that are embedded in our airport security systems. Does it really matter who gets the budgets, or who can hire or fire? What is needed is an evidence-based evaluation of airport security that focuses on the security decision-making process and then comes to terms with the results!

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

Monday, February 6, 2012

Individual initiatives outplay security instruments

Large percentage of security and other personnel in airports do not wholly trust their security instruments and, to some extent, rely on their gut feelings when it comes to inspecting passengers, according to a presentation given by Dr. Coen van Gulijk from the BEMOSA (Behaviour Modelling for Security in Airports) project at the European Organization of Security (EOS) meeting on January 16.

Dr. van Gulijk, who teaches at the Delft University of Technology, presented BEMOSA's findings showing that often security personnel use their own initiatives to double-check bags or items, even when the instruments they are using do not raise the standard alarms.

From the interviews and surveys conducted with security personnel, BEMOSA researchers also noted that group consultations usually form the basis of security decisions in airports, over individuals determining alone what course of action to take.

Dr. van Gulijk, said that observing the actual behavior of security workers in airports indicates that on a daily basis, many non-routine security events take place that trigger non-routine security behavior. This means that often ad-hoc decision-making ends up solving various security problems.

The study presented at EOS also shed light on the information network used by security personnel while at work. Findings show that the interaction between colleagues in different departments is essential, with workers turning to many different colleagues with their questions. In addition, security personnel often rely on regular passengers as reliable sources for security information about fellow-passengers.