Profs Rethink Airport Terrorism Defense Systems

New Ways of Using Profile and Screening Tools Could Improve Efficiency

Jan. 19, 2010

An attempt to set a trans-Atlantic jetliner aflame above Detroit on Christmas Day has revived a simmering airline security debate.

Researchers at UT Dallas say new ways of using passenger profiling with screening devices could strengthen security and minimize passenger concerns about convenience and privacy in the wake of that incident.

Dr. Huseyin Cavusoglu and Dr. Srinivasan Raghunathan, information systems professors at the School of Management, reached that conclusion after taking a recent look at the value of passenger profiling.

“The biggest challenge is that we are trying to find a needle in a haystack, because the fraction of criminals in the population is very small.”

Dr. Huseyin
Cavusoglu

Their research, conducted with graduate student Byungwa Koh, will be published later this year in the academic journal Operations Research.

“The biggest challenge is that we are trying to find a needle in a haystack, because the fraction of criminals in the population is very small,” Cavusoglu said. “What we say is that it’s not enough to have a screening system, but if the screening system and profiler complement one another, we have a better shot at finding the needle.”

Although previous studies have explored the effectiveness of profiling, according to Raghunathan, this is the first major study that examines how profiling can work with screening devices to create a system that balances the needs of airlines with those of customers.

Screening and profiling systems are both designed to detect security threats, but their functions differ, Raghunathan says. Screening systems, such as scanners and pat-downs, help reveal prohibited items that could be used to carry out an attack. Profiling, on the other hand, is “not a legitimate substitute for real evidence,” the trio's research paper says. Rather, it is a system designed to identify attackers who may carry forbidden items.

In the study, the researchers first considered a base-line scenario in which all passengers classified as potential attackers by a profiling system were manually inspected while all others were sent through a screening system. This is the approach the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took after 9/11.

“Then you’re treating them somewhat in the same fashion in the sense that both groups will have to go through a screening system. That might take away some of the criticism that the opponents of profiling have.”

Dr. Srinivasan Raghunathan

The researchers proposed a second scenario in which all passengers that a profiling system classified as potential attackers went through one screening system while the remaining passengers went through another.

The researchers found that the TSA’s initial approach did not necessarily improve the potential for catching attackers. More effective and less inconvenient was their proposal to use profiling with two types of screening systems.

“In this kind of setup, the two groups of passengers (those who have been identified as possible attackers and those who have not) would be sent through screening systems, but two different screening systems. One could be very sensitive and one less sensitive. Then you’re treating them somewhat in the same fashion in the sense that both groups will have to go through a screening system. That might take away some of the criticism that the opponents of profiling have,” Raghunathan said.

Cavusoglu and Raghunathan, who have studied security issues in many other areas, began looking at airline safety after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“After 9/11, there was a lot of focus on security, and we, along with many others, began to look at the TSA’s strategies, whether they were successful in identifying attackers and whether they benefited passengers. We used our prior work on information security and began looking at whether profiling systems, which the TSA had tried implementing in the past, really helped achieve security,” said Raghunathan.


Media contact: Jill Glass, UT Dallas, (972)883-5989, jill.glass@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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Huseyin Cavusoglu   Srinivasan Raghunathan
Dr. Huseyin Cavusoglu (left) and Dr. Srinivasan Raghunathan began looking at airline safety issues after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

 

Screening vs. Profiling

Although the TSA over the last few years has introduced a number of screening devices – ranging from simple metal detectors to sophisticated, three-dimensional X-ray machines – to detect would-be criminals, these systems often create false alarms. The danger, say researchers, is false alarms not only frustrate innocent passengers but also can cause security personnel to ignore the signals, defeating the devices’ intent.

After 2001, the TSA introduced several versions of a profiling system that classified passengers into “high-risk” and “low-risk” categories based on information such as gender, race and age, as well as behavioral screening information, such as looking at flight information, frequent-flier status and mode of ticket payment.

But on Christmas Day, 2009, U.S. intelligence agencies and airline security personnel missed many of these kinds of behavioral clues when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed to board a Detroit-bound airplane. The 23-year-old, accused of the failed bombing attack, paid cash for an expensive ticket, was traveling without any checked luggage over a two-week trip during the busy holiday season and had raised security concerns among some agencies and his father.

“Although screening devices are considered to be highly efficient and effective in detecting explosive items, they are not foolproof, as we have seen in a recent incident in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a jetliner,” said Cavusoglu. “If there had been a profiler that relied on the intelligence that was available at that time – such as a specific warning from his father and being on a watch list – this person could have been identified by the profiler.”

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