Database Management and Airline Security

Posted January 14, 2010 at 12:20pm

President Barack Obama’s recognition earlier this month that U.S. intelligence “failed to connect the dots— in a way that would have precluded the extremist plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day is worrisomely anachronistic — not merely because we’ve heard similar pronouncements from previous administrations, but because it suggests an outdated understanding of the resources now available for use in the consolidation and processing of information.[IMGCAP(1)]The president cited the “challenge of sifting through vast universes of intelligence and data in our Information Age.— But he made no reference to the fact we are currently living in a golden age of database compilation and management. We are capable of more than just accessing great quantities of data; we have the technology and the software to analyze and assess such data in milliseconds.At a time when Facebook can suggest dozens of names from our past to friend, iTunes can recommend downloads we’ll enjoy and Walmart can precisely calculate our likelihood of buying frozen peas on any given day, it is inconceivable that authorities have not yet developed an authoritative reference database on potential terrorists.The “systemic failure— that contributed to last month’s near airline disaster was the failure of government agencies to improve the management of our existing terrorist databases. Those agencies currently have the technology to generate reliable red flags that would alert airport security officers about individuals who present significant risks — even if they have not been deemed dangerous enough to place on the “no-fly— list.Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be perpetrator of this latest attack, had been entered in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a list of 550,000 people of interest, based on concerns expressed by his family. This list, often based on unconfirmed information, is understandably kept confidential. Less understandable is the fact that no effort is currently made to match it with airline passenger lists.Furthermore, the TIDE list was criticized by a House subcommittee last year as suffering from “basic design, management and maintenance inefficiencies and problems.— Not all of the information being gathered by the intelligence agencies is entered into the database properly, and the data that have been entered are not searchable as efficiently as ought to be the case.This situation needs to be corrected — and quickly.More updated and effective database management would serve not only as a useful tool to intelligence agencies that track terrorist activity but could be confidentially matched against airline passenger manifests on an ongoing basis to generate the red flags that airport security officers could put to good use.Under a well-designed system, a matrix of factors could be assessed to generate a range of indicators of varying intensity. A low-intensity red flag might merit nothing more than an unusually careful pat-down. An individual such as Abdulmutallab — recently reported as missing and potentially dangerous by his family, rejected for a visa by the United Kingdom, traveling at the last minute on a long-distance ticket purchased with cash, with no checked luggage — should automatically generate a prominent warning signal.Under the current system, it appears improbable that airport security in Lagos, Nigeria, or Amsterdam had any notion that Abdulmutallab was suspected of anything at all. Yet had his name generated even a low-level alert in the course of the check-in process, it is unlikely the passengers and crew of flight 253 would have had to resort to wrestling and fire extinguishers to ensure a safe landing in Detroit.The existing system clearly failed us. To protect the passengers and airline staff who entrust their lives to this system on a daily basis, more efficient use must be made of the information and security technologies that are already available to us — but which federal agencies have thus far been slow to fully leverage.Proper information technology management is one of today’s key resources, and it is at our disposal to minimize the terrible risks and costs of an episode like the recent near-tragedy over Detroit. It is time to make certain that we consistently, reliably and expeditiously put the critical information we have gathered into the hands of those who are charged on a daily basis with protecting the public.Stephen H. Judson is managing member of Prides Crossing Executive Communication, a speechwriting firm. He travels by air more than 100 times per year.