Homeland Security is based on human control; but demands high-tech logic and speed

The events of Delta flight 253 Amsterdam to Detroit has opened the floodgates of post event analysis. Everything from why the warnings were not heeded to how information already contained in databases was not properly accessed.
Written by Doug Hanchard, Contributor on

The events of Delta flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit has opened the floodgates of post-event analysis. Everything from why the warnings from the alleged terrorist's father were not heeded to how information already contained in databases of the British and American intelligence agencies did not get from Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to Amsterdam Airport security to allow them to intervene. President Obama has ordered a review of airport security.

One thing is clear, policies and protocol still need significant improvement. Agencies around the world review information involving thousands of new updates every minute.  Enquiries and hearings will look for scapegoats and attempts to score political points will be in high gear over the next several weeks. Meanwhile airlines will continue to bleed financially as air travel gets another black eye. Travel to the U.S. is likely to see a downturn with economic impacts that will have repercussions, something that foes of the U.S. are possibly doing intentionally. Can technology solve the problems of air travel?

The answer is yes, with certain risks and the potential to make errors.  Policies and procedures often conflict with technology. There are two main challenges with high tech; reliance on the devices which in turn allows the users to become complacent with it and errors that side swipe the innocent.

The incident involving Canadian Maher Arar is a case in point. During a stopover in New York from Tunisia to Canada, Mr. Arar was flagged on a watch list. What followed was a complete disaster for both U.S. and Canadian authorities. Not only did they have wrong information, authorities shipped Mr. Arar back to Syria where he was tortured instead of sending home to Canada.

With Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the flight 253 alleged attacker, the exact opposite has occurred. His own father notified authorities over concerns with what his son might do. Not only was Abdulmutallab on a list, but he was flagged on two lists, British and American. So how did Abdulmutallab depart on a flight from Nigeria with a stop in Amsterdam get aboard a flight to the U.S. so easily?

Several security issues are likely the cause, among them, once Abdulmutallab landed in Amsterdam, he was already in a security zone of screened passengers within the airport facilities.  He wasn't screened again.

Would programming of the data sets in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security have prevented Mr. Abdulmutallab from boarding a U.S. bound aircraft? From an information management perspective, the odds are no better than 50-50. Resources, over lapping information priorities, complacency, human error and work load create risk that is impossible to reduce to zero.

One thing is certain, human x-ray machines would have assisted and very likely stopped Abdulmutallab from getting aboard. How safe they are for use in such environments is still being determined. After this latest incident, it is very likely these machines will be implemented all over the world and become mandatory if boarding on an aircraft that is flying to the United States.

Updated: December 30, 2009 - Presidential Executive Order Link

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