As the former head of research and development for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the individual charged with the design and installation of security systems at the Pentagon, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how technology can improve security.

One of the biggest challenges is developing and implementing an aviation security system that is effective, cost-efficient, can handle large volumes of passengers and cargo without slowing down the pace of commerce, and isn’t viewed as intrusive.  Unfortunately, as every air traveler knows, our current aviation security system is far from perfect.

Even more worrisome is the fact that the aviation security challenge will only grow. The unprecedented and growing reach of ISIS, through direct agents or self-radicalized terrorists, means the threat is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. In addition to an increasing and evolving terrorist threat, aviation traffic is likely to grow anywhere from 3-5 percent per year, with 20 year projections forecasting a more than doubling of the current 3.3 billion passengers a year to 7.3 billion.

This begs the question: can our aviation security system, which is already strained, handle these increased pressures? The answer is likely to be an emphatic “no” unless we make significant changes.  What can be done? On the horizon are some new technologies and process changes that could dramatically improve the air travelling public’s experience while simultaneously improving security.

On the technology front, there are some exciting new technologies being developed that will help expedite the travel process and provide new capabilities to detect threats and make us safer. One of these advancements is X-ray diffraction technology, which uses advanced sensors to detect how different elements alter the path of an X-ray when it passes through or bounces off different items being screened. Current checkpoint X-ray machines can only tell whether something is organic, or potentially an explosive, whereas an X-ray diffraction machine can tell the difference between a bottle of water, shampoo, or an improvised explosive. This holds the promise of allowing passengers to keep liquids inside their bags and even carry full-size bottles in their carry-ons.

Another technology that is poised to revolutionize security screening is the use of metamaterials to build an extremely fast body scanning capability. Based on technology originally built for satellite communications, these new metamaterials allow the creation of “steerable” millimeter wave beams, operating at very high refresh rates so that hundreds of images can be taken in seconds. Instead of standing in a large plastic cylinder with your hands above your head, these new technologies could create a “tunnel of truth,” where a traveler simply walks through a checkpoint and is scanned hundreds of times. Those scans are processed in real-time with advanced target recognition algorithms that allow the scanners to dynamically focus on anomalies and resolve those anomalies all in the time the person walks through the checkpoint, without a human ever having to see an image or pat someone down. Since millimeter waves don’t penetrate the skin, the scans are perfectly safe. If combined, these technologies would allow passengers to simply drop their bag at one end of the checkpoint, walk 20 feet, pick up their bag, and continue to their gate without slowing down.

While we wait for science to work its miracles, there are other improvements that should be explored. By most measures, TSA Pre✓® has been a success, but its reach will always be limited due to the costs and effort it takes to participate. How can risk-based screening be expanded to account for the occasional traveler, like my father, who, by any measure, is an extremely low risk passenger? There are some commercial efforts focused on real-time background checks, using an amalgam of publically available databases that can identify very low risk people, like my father, who is older, doesn’t travel much, has no social media profile, and is unlikely to be a terrorist. You can imagine a check-in process where you’re asked if you want to apply for expedited screening based on a real-time background check. This allows you to opt-in and then tags your boarding pass if you’re TSA Pre✓® eligible. The algorithms could be set to only grant access to those who are unambiguously low-risk threats to ensure overall security.  A low-cost, low impact system like this could vastly increase participation in TSA Pre✓® screening lanes, which process passengers at twice the rate of a normal screening line.

The challenges that the aviation security industry will face as threats evolve and passenger levels increase, make it essential that we be open to new ideas, new technologies, and leverage innovations from other sectors. There is no silver bullet that will solve the challenges we face, but with the employment of these promising ideas and technologies, we can improve security and make the process less painful.


The original article can be found here on The Cipher Brief.