Position: Founder, Yeffet Security Consultants, an airline security firm
Issue: Air travel screening. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration wants to increase the use of technology to improve airline security. But will it really help?
Personal Point of Impact: Former head of global security for Israel’s El Al airline Technology Review: How can technology make security screening for air travel safer?
Isaac Yeffet: Technology works well when used to help qualified and well-trained human beings. Technology can never replace the human being. And in the U.S.A., technology is the only security that we have and rely on for baggage and carry-on screening in our airports. The people we have are not qualified, and the technology we have at the airports around the country-which has a 35 percent false-alarm rate-is the wrong concept.
TR: What kind of technology do U.S. airports use today?
Yeffet: The majority is in vision, with the CTX, a chemically blind x-ray machine that we see at airports. It can drive us crazy by identifying chocolate, cheese, pizza, cakes, et cetera, as something suspicious. Thirty-five percent of the time we get a false alarm, so you have either to rescreen luggage or open it for hand search. When we know that we send to U.S. air carriers alone 1.5 billion pieces of luggage and carry-ons every year, it comes to between 1.2 and 1.3 million pieces of luggage a day that we have to rescreen or hand search. Now this is wrong, because you cannot drive the screeners crazy by [making them open] luggage after luggage to find out there is no explosive. One of the biggest enemies of security is routine. After a while, it becomes a routine, and the screeners will not pay attention anymore. They are not even trained to do a professional hand search, especially when we deal with a sophisticated enemy who knows how to conceal explosives in a double bottom.
TR:The screeners seem like our primary line of defense, then. How are they hired, post-September 11?
Yeffet: We have 55,000 screeners around the country. By law, a screener cannot be hired without a criminal background check. Now, we found out that 22,000 security guys were hired without any background security check-after September 11. Millions of passengers, their lives are in the hands of these people. At JFK alone, in May they found that 50 security people have a criminal record. This is not the security that we need and deserve in this country.
TR:So how do you pick and train people properly for this job?
Yeffet: First, by hiring only qualified people, minimum high-school education, speaking both English and another language. Then we train them for days, not hours, and train them on the job, and then test them, test after test. I used to do thousands of tests every year when I was head of security for El Al. And I didn’t do simple tests by sending somebody with a fake explosive through the x-ray machine to find out if the screener can stop it. We did complicated ones where a passenger has to go with the luggage to the check-in to be interviewed by El Al security, and they have to determine if this is a bona fide passenger or suspicious passenger.
Unfortunately, the intelligence organizations cannot cover all the terrorist plans or activities, and therefore the security of the airline should act also as an intelligence agency. As an example, the employees of the ticket office and the reservations department have to be trained to send information to the security department of the airlines to tell them who came to buy tickets at the last minute, who paid cash, who bought a one-way ticket, and how they behaved. Nationality and so on and so on. Here, we don’t train anybody. We rely only on the low level of technology that exists at the moment at our airports.