Advancing the new era of digitalised, data-driven security

by Matt  Clark – Vice President Technology and Programme Management.


We are living in an age of increasing and evolving threats – from explosives and biological pathogens to cyber-attacks. Safeguarding public spaces is therefore top of policy-makers’ priorities. From corporate and government buildings, to borders and airports, effective security solutions are required to protect property, staff, and the public. As countries around the world continue the fight against COVID-19 and mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, operational and cost efficiency has become more important than ever.

For every industry where security measures are required, there are a specific set of emerging threats and pressures, and in many cases, this is coupled with specific regulatory requirements. Take the air cargo sector for example, explosives, weapons, and drugs are very present threats, and new regulation around dangerous goods and lithium battery handling is being introduced from 2022. Against this backdrop, solutions which effectively tackle threats and support compliance without compromising on efficiency are vital for a sector that trades on speed – and this is the case for many industries.

The good news is that technologies are available which not only advance screening procedures and detection capabilities to monitor for and identify complex threats, but reduce the operator burden, create higher throughput, and maintain system uptime to help keep both people and property safer, without the need for large numbers of highly skilled and very costly security personnel. So, what are the new and emerging technologies which have the potential to unlock this new, more efficient era of security?


AI: Removing the guesswork by doing the legwork

Artificial intelligence (AI) powered software is at the heart of many solutions which automate the detection of threats, increasing the accuracy of detection and reducing operator interference to create more seamless security processes. Advanced detection capabilities enabled by AI can enhance existing security systems in any setting – whether that be an airport, at a border, or in a stadium.

Machine learning algorithms can imitate the way the human brain processes data and identify patterns for use in decision-making. The vast amounts of data collected on prohibited items through security processes can be used to train and refine algorithms to achieve a highly accurate rate of automatic detection of hazards or illicit goods through object recognition. This can help to combat the movement of an ever-expanding list of unsafe, undeclared, or illegal items such as weapons, drugs, or even currency, without interrupting the flow of people, bags, or cargo. By delivering the highest level of threat detection it can also support more efficient resource planning for customs officers, security operators or other controlling authorities.

Algorithms are readily available for use at security checkpoints and could enable alarm-only viewing of X-ray images to significantly improve throughput and security levels, ideal for busy passenger and cargo airports and large, public events. As an emerging area, the urgent need for this type of contactless and efficiency boosting technology could mean that we see the capabilities of AI powered algorithmic software expand at a fast pace, and the relevant approval required for safe implementation for regulated industries.

The value of AI can be clearly seen in complex security operations where volumes are increasing but resource availability is decreasing. For example, customs and security professionals are facing growing traffic at maritime ports, land border crossing points and city entrances. At the same time, they are required to provide faster clearance times, while keeping strict controls in place to monitor the flow of imports, exports and transit traffic. Image analysts must match X-ray images of scanned cargo with original manifest reports while also looking for potential threats. AI-powered algorithms can automatically highlight only those X-ray images where suspicious items have been detected, such as cigarettes or even dangerous levels of radioactivity, speeding up the overall analysis process and supporting the secure movement of goods and free flow of trade.


Widening the network to close the efficiency gap   

For hubs, such as major airports and busy ports, where there are multiple terminals and consistently high volumes of passengers or cargo, wide-area networks (WANs), which enable centralized and remote image evaluation, can be the best way forward. Although centralization is not a new concept, image analysis is a new application. WANs can facilitate the real-time sharing of images between different areas of a building or sites (or even countries and continents) enabling greater resource prioritisation and operational efficiency.

Although long established for airport hold baggage screening systems, remote screening is new for airport passenger checkpoints, cargo and border control. The benefits are particularly clear when it comes to countries with many regional airports spread far apart which see fluctuating passenger volumes. Linking all outlying locations to a key airport where volumes are more consistent enables more efficient operator resourcing, rather than keeping staff onsite at smaller airports around the clock. Indeed, larger airports could offer outsourced security services to smaller airports. At borders, where an enormous amount of goods pass through entry and exit points 24 hours a day, a centralised Dataset Management System can allow X-ray images and associated data to be analysed online in a remote-control centre. On-site operators can therefore focus on the scanning process and completing the relevant dataset information such as customs declarations and vehicle licence plates.

On a country-to-country or even continental level, image sharing via WANs would enable more sophisticated data analysis across global security networks to significantly boost security outcomes, with one set of scanned images for both outbound security and inbound customs clearance at the destination. Of course, security outcomes can never be compromised, so wide networks must be robust and secure, with sufficient bandwidth for real-time distribution of the images. This creates significant technical challenges in establishing a viable WAN, and back-up solutions are required in case of network failures. Although the capability is there, to fully realise the potential of international data sharing close co-operation between authorities is required. Looking to the future, centralised screening could consolidate not only images from checkpoint screening but trace equipment, body scanners and CCTV.

Beyond image screening, there are significant operational advantages to networking, which can be used as an intelligent source of management data and statistics to inform decision making.  For example, information gathered from across a WAN can support preventive maintenance, resource allocation and general administration, delivering cost-efficiencies as well as a high level of system uptime. While centralised management via WANs is already in operation with some global security screening installations, none are yet handling real-time image analysis in a co-ordinated or consistent way.


Differentiated screening: One size does not fit all 

The advantages of adopting a remote WAN screening model are accentuated when paired with a differentiated screening approach based on risk and sensitivity levels of either cargo or people. For cargo, data such as the shipper, origin, destination as well as weight, size and density of cargo allows for the creation of bespoke risk scores, so that security operator and screening resource can be focused on shipments that pose a higher risk, whilst parcels from trusted shippers are fast-tracked. Risk scores can typically be generated through the shipping manifest, which acts as a unique identifier, with the risk assessment criteria based on the key data. For example, shipments from Africa may pose a higher risk of illegal animal trade due to the issue of rhino horn smuggling. The concept of ‘one stop security’ can be enabled using WAN image sharing combined with differentiated screening. Screening and risk-based data could be shared between departure points with destination authorities, allowing for the rescreening requirement at the transfer airport to be determined by risk profile.

For example, The El Salvadorian Dirección General de Aduanas (Customs Department) is responsible for controlling the export, import and transit of goods at all the country’s border crossing and entry points, and therefore safeguarding the country against smuggling, illegal trafficking of narcotics, weapons, contraband and other illegal goads and substances. In conjunction with local partner Cotecna, Smiths Detection worked closely with Dirección General de Aduanas on a multi-border inspection project which involved a differentiated screening approach. Consignments travelling through the county are now assessed for risk to determine scanning requirements, allowing for the appropriate level of screening to be applied, ranging from re-checks on different X-ray systems to checks with hand-held equipment to detect traces of explosives on vehicles and palletized cargo.

When it comes to people and handheld baggage screening in airports and buildings, AI and biometrics can be used to gather, combine and analyse comprehensive profiles to allow for more efficient and targeted screening. The key enabler of this type of automated, differentiation assessment could be a biometrics-enabled checkpoint. Differentiated screening adapts the security process through individualised risk assessments based on a unique identifier, created using biometrics, combined with contextual information – such as ticketing information or ID details. Once a person’s name or ticket information is amalgamated with data from third party sources, a risk score can be generated. Applying differentiated levels of screening focuses operator resources on those with higher risk scores, reducing the pressure on screening operators as well as costs, while enabling a more seamless flow of people through the screening process.


Cyber-proof: Building resilient networks

With increasing reliance on connected, digital security solutions comes an increasing risk of cybersecurity attacks, with incidents ranging from temporary disruption to global networks going down. In 2019 IATA published a whitepaper, Air Transport Security 2040 and Beyond, which warns that by 2040 more airport processes will be conducted offsite, requiring a range of networks and thereby increasing the risk of vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit – which is true of any networked system. Security systems which use AI-enabled algorithms often require access to the cloud and are shared through open architecture utilising third party open interfaces. To ensure these connections are robust, and to protect the highly sensitive data that security systems collect, a holistic approach to developing cybersecurity policies is required which spans software, hardware, process, and operators. The first step of this approach is assessing operational risks and compliance requirements, with the goal of forming a bespoke policy which is flexible enough to adapt to new and evolving threats without compromising robustness.


A contactless future

The implementation of digital, data-driven and differentiated solutions can enable a more contactless and efficient future for security. These technologies are becoming commercially available, and we are seeing an acceleration in development and in situ trials. Not only do these technologies improve the security operator’s experience, but the end user’s, from airport passengers to sports fans in stadiums. While the technical capabilities are there, the responsible implementation of these solutions brings a set of challenges which can only be tackled with a collaborative and integrated approach between suppliers, operators and authorities. In some cases, this will require significant co-operation transcending borders.


This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of the International Security Journal.