Airport security takes stock of internal risks
Employees of airlines and airline lounges, duty-free shops and ground handling companies at airports that are deemed to be vulnerable to terrorist threats will be under the watch of security agencies in a preventive measure that’s in line with a government plan to make airports safer for travellers.
Treating “insider risk” as the next major challenge confronting the aviation sector, the civil aviation ministry has decided to restrict the movement of employees working on airport premises and carry out periodic security audits/assessments on them.
The ministry has recommended an Intelligence Bureau-led verification of those posted at critical points on the premises, according to two officials familiar with the development who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is wary of any employees — contractual or permanent — getting radicalised or associating with any terrorist group or hostile spy agency. Those who fall in the category of “insiders” include management and support staff, contract security staff, vendors, flight crews, airline ticketing agents, aircraft mechanics, baggage handlers, contractual aircraft custodial crews, catering staff, law enforcement employees, custom agents, security screening personnel and air traffic controllers.
“They usually have trusted and verified positions that give them access to secure areas, critical infrastructure and sensitive information at the airport(s), hence it is imperative that we have countermeasures which include checking antecedents of everyone working at airport on a regular basis, have biometrics, PIN codes, proximity cards, vehicle identification and regular training and awareness programmes for insiders,” said a senior ministry official.
Precedents exist to back the concerns about insiders. Rajib Karim, a follower of radical cleric Anwar al-Alwaki, used his position as an information technology expert at British Airways to cause financial losses to the airline by disrupting its communication systems and attempting to blow up a plane in 2010. And in 2013, avionics technician Terry Loewen studied the Wichita airport layout, flight patterns and passenger movements with plans to detonate a car bomb in a plot that was ultimately thwarted by investigators.
One of the two officials cited above said the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had put in place multiple layers of security, including crew vetting, as part of a risk-based approach. “We want to have a system in place like TSA where insiders do not become a risk in future,” he said.
Globally, agencies overseeing security at airports have come around to the view that the movement of employees working at airports need to be tracked, an official at the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) said, requesting anonymity. “Whenever an attack is planned, some insider will help those who will plan it from outside. So the people who work at the airport need to be watched,” the official said.
BCAS, which frames guidelines related to aviation security, issues an Airport Entry Pass (AEP) to employees at airports and takes local police help for background checks on airport employees. It will now switch to IB verification in select cases.
“The IB-led insider risk assessment defines the character, behaviour and vulnerability of an employee, which may not be covered in current police-led verification. It is important for the security of the airports,” said LN Rao, a former Delhi Police officer and security expert.
Some airports run by private operators are testing biometric access to airports for employees.The Airports Authority of India (AAI), which manages 94 of the 100 operational airports, is installing biometric card readers at over 40 airports.
“If someone has not used the AEP for six months, he will be barred from using it again. Biometric access will help us track if an employee, who doesn’t have access to certain areas, is trying to access it or not. Also, off-duty employees won’t be able to enter the terminal building,” said another BCAS official.
BCAS issues over 100,000 permanent passes every year; temporary passes are issued on a daily basis.
BCAS has divided airports into 11 sections, each of which is identified by an alphabet, and issues passes restricting entry only to that particular area. Once linked to a biometric identification system, doors and access points will open only to authorized personnel whose identity is verified by the system.