On an otherwise quiet Tuesday evening in July, the Indian financial capital of Mumbai is rocked by seven explosions on crowded commuter trains and in train stations. At least 464 people are injured — 174 are killed.
Four days earlier, in London, makeshift shrines and piles of roses and daisies had adorned the front of the Kings Cross rail station — one of the sites of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombing attacks on three of the city’s subway trains and a bus. The terrorist attack had claimed 52 lives that day.
All the attacks were similar to the mass transit bombings in Madrid in 2004 — they involved multiple, well-coordinated blasts.
A month or so before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security acknowledges that the United States may have been days away from another major terrorist attack, but for an undercover British agent that infiltrated a U.K.-based terrorist group. The agent informed authorities of the group’s plan to blow up 10 U.S.-bound jetliners using liquid-based explosives.
Terrorists continue to target transportation systems, despite a massive build-up of security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Technology — from digital video to explosives detection — remains an important tool to stop them.
“Since the awful events of 9/11, transit agencies have invested more than $2 billion of their own funds for enhanced security,” said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), in testimony before the House of Representatives this year. An APTA survey identified $6 billion more in transit security needs.
Millar said the aviation industry has received more than $18 billion in federal security funding since 9/11 while the public transportation industry has received only $250 million.
Securing Public Transportation
Among the hundreds of public transit security projects across the country, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (NY-MTA) is taking broad steps to help ensure the safety and security of its transportation systems in what Millar calls “the most extensive security measures taken by a public transportation system to date.”
NY-MTA will add 1,000 surveillance cameras and 3,000 motion sensors to its network of subways and commuter rail facilities as part of a $212 million security upgrade announced last year with Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md. Millar says NY-MTA plans to spend more than $1.1 billion between now and 2009 on transit security.
In New Jersey, DHS has concluded its Rail Security Pilot project aimed at screening everyday passengers for explosives. That phase of the project, conducted at the PATH Exchange Place station in Jersey City, used a body screening portal from L-3 Communications, New York, to test for explosives. The system uses non-ionizing active millimeter wave imaging technology to detect explosives anywhere on a body walking through a portal.
Brijot Imaging Systems, Orlando, Fla., tested a weapons-detecting camera during the pilot project. The camera alerts authorities to a person with a suspicious large object hidden under clothing.
GE Security, Bradenton, Fla., has teamed with Cubic Corp. to develop an “automatic public transit ticket vending machine with integrated early warning explosives detection.” Deployed in a test project at a Baltimore Metro Transit Authority station, the system is designed to detect explosives residue on passengers as they select their ticket before boarding a train.
“Conventional (public transit) security wisdom teaches practitioners to separate passengers from transportation operations to isolate a threat from a populated area,” says Glen Francisco, product manager for L-3 Communications Infrared Products, Dallas. “Because rail and transit systems find passengers and transportation media co-mingled, executing plans against this wisdom is difficult to do.”
Many new technologies are still in their testing phases. The public transportation industry’s chief association is developing standards. “We are applying our expertise in standards development to transit industry security, best practices, guidelines and standards,” Millar says. “We are working with our federal partners at both DHS and the Department of Transportation (DOT).”
Explosives detection may get the buzz, but other security solutions are finding their way into train and bus stations.
NICE Systems, Ra’anana, Israel, touts its smart surveillance solutions, capable of identifying a bag that has been left alone for 10 minutes. Ross and Baruzzini, St. Louis, is currently assessing CCTV, intrusion detection and access control for a Metropolitan Transit Authority in Texas.
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) has awarded a contract to A4S Security Inc., Loveland, Colo., for a mobile digital video surveillance system to be installed in 40 light rail vehicles and 18 platform stations.
Transit systems have been ordered by the government to take a risk-based approach to security. Both the DHS and the DOT help fund rail transit security investments, and DHS has promoted risk-based funding decisions in the allocation of transit security grants.
According to a best practices report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), both domestic and foreign rail transit operators have taken similar actions to help secure their systems; however, GAO points to some practices by foreign passenger rail operators as potential models for the U.S. system. Some countries use covert testing of screeners and employees to make sure they are alert to potential threats. Other countries use random screening of passengers; and others have created centralized clearinghouses on rail security technologies, such as chemical sensors.
“Introducing any of these security practices into the U.S. rail system may warrant further examination,” said JayEtta Z. Hecker, the GAO director of physical infrastructure issues, in a statement before a House subcommittee this year.
Airport security back in the news
As long as terrorists focus on public transportation, airlines and airports will continue to be targets — as anyone who was in an American or British airport on Aug. 10 can attest.
Because the alleged terrorists in London planned to use common liquids to form an explosive, all liquids and gels were abruptly banned from being carried onto planes that day. The ban on items, initiated by the Transportation Security Administration, applied to all types of beverages, shampoo, toothpaste, hair gels and other items of a similar consistency. For planes traveling between the U.S. and Britain, the rules were even tighter, as authorities banned almost all carry-on items.
For the first time, U.S. officials raised the threat level for air transport to “red,” the highest alert. The alleged terrorists had intended to target flights to Washington, New York and California operated by American Airlines, Continental Airlines and United Airlines, a U.S. official said. There were brief periods in the past — such as immediately following the 2005 London bombings — when the lesser “orange” level was applied.
“We recognize these measures are inconvenient,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in the wake of the new security precautions. “But they are proportionate to the very real threat to the lives of innocent people that was posed by this plot. We are taking every prudent step to thwart new tactics of terror. Today, air traffic is safe. And air traffic will remain safe precisely because of the measures we are adopting today.”
As the news was confirmed that British authorities had captured all members of the terrorist group, the U.S. lowered the threat level to orange. Chertoff said DHS will continue to evaluate the new security measures and will further adjust them as necessary to ensure the aviation system remains secure.
As liquid explosives being smuggled aboard planes became a concern, security industry suppliers pointed to technologies to address the threat.
American Science and Engineering Inc., Billerica, Mass., was among the companies stepping forward with technology solutions to the liquid explosives problem. The company’s parcel inspection systems use dual-energy X-ray technologies to detect liquid and other types of explosives. DefenderTech International Solutions, St. Clair Shores, Mich., began publicizing its threat detection system, which detects liquid explosives concealed beneath clothing or “body suits” and placed in containers made of plastic, composite, ceramic, metal or non-ferrous metal. These materials cannot be detected using metal detectors or “sniffer” type devices.
“We’ve had detection machines in place in many airports, but they’re not always effective because they don’t pick up very innocuous-looking substances that are homemade,” Andy Oppenheimer, editor of Jane’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence, a publication based in Coulsdon, England, told Bloomberg News.
Nitroglycerin, which Oppenheimer says is one of the candidates for substances involved in the U.K. plot, can be made to look like “an ordinary drink.”
“Explosive-detection research is among the highest of our priorities, including liquids,” said Chertoff’s deputy, Michael Jackson, during a recent conference call. Researchers are studying several new devices that might identify liquid explosives, but Jackson added: “There is nothing currently that’s suitable for mass deployment, but there are some promising technologies we have been looking at.”
Security checkpoints at more than 30 U.S. airports, including Dulles International in Washington D.C., John F. Kennedy in New York and Logan International in Boston, have been equipped with the latest explosives-detection equipment from GE and Smiths Detection, the TSA said in a statement.
Smiths Detection, Pine Brook, N.J., sells the Sentinel II, a machine that uses airflow to dislodge particles from the clothing and skin of airline passengers as they pass through the machine, providing samples to be analyzed for traces of explosives, chemicals and drugs, according to the company’s Web site.
It competes with the EntryScan portal from GE Security, which is designed to detect traces of explosives. The machine is meant to be used in conjunction with the company’s Itemiser desktop unit, thousands of which are in use in the U.S., that detects explosives on objects through the use of a swab, says Steve Hill, a spokesman for GE’s Homeland Security business.
Vigilance is the key
As front-line targets for terrorist attacks, the government and the transportation industry must keep its eyes and ears open, Chertoff says. “We are remaining vigilant for any signs of planning within the U.S. or directed at Americans,” Chertoff says. “We are maintaining our heightened level of security for all flights both domestically and internationally.”
While it seems the U.S. flight and airports are secure, the British plot underscores how the threat to airplane security has moved beyond simply metal and guns. The ban on liquids will not be the only step taken to upgrade security in the wake of the foiled terrorist plot. In the months ahead, the TSA is expected to revisit all its processes for screening passengers and their luggage.