The security week that was: 12/10/10 (air cargo security)

Progress on air cargo security

SIW Editor-in-Chief Geoff Kohl is in San Francisco this week for the California Alarm Association's winter convention, so I'll be filling in to give you a roundup of the week's top security news.

As the Transportation Security Administration's use of body scanners and more invasive pat downs have dominated headlines in recent weeks, the issue of air cargo security seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Lest we forget, it was only a little over a month ago that authorities intercepted explosive packages on U.S.-bound jets.

While there was the typical knee-jerk reaction to ban ink toner cartridges exceeding certain size limits after the foiled bomb plot, there has been little in the press since the incident outlining what the government and cargo shippers plan to do to address the problem.

This week, however, there were several developments on the air cargo security front. For starters, Atlanta-based UPS announced that it will begin checking photo identifications of customers shipping packages at their retail locations, including The UPS Store, Mail Boxes Etc. and other authorized shipping outlets. The company said that move was part of an ongoing effort to bolster security.

"I think the thing to ask about this move is: What does it really do? Does having an ID preclude you from bombing the cargo system? Unless there is some sort of screening system tied to this, it will be an entirely ineffective task," Kohl said of the move. "Fortunately, the TSA seems to be moving in this direction, and is reportedly conducting tests that involve verification on shipping manifests. We can only assume that this photo ID information is part of that process. That said, there seems to be no clear verification of the safety of the goods. We may check all the IDs we want to flag that one-out-of-a-million Christmas gift that might have been shipped by a man possibility connected to a radical organization, but if we aren't checking the actual packages, are we really improving security, or just adding theater? Let's remember, the bombs would be in the packages, not in the driver's licenses."

The Department of Homeland Security also announced that Secretary Janet Napolitano met this week with leaders of several global shipping firms including UPS, FedEx, DHL, Atlas, and TNT to discuss strengthening air cargo security measures. This follows a meeting Napolitano had with shippers in the immediate aftermath of the failed bomb plot last month.

While no real specifics of the conversation between Napolitano and the heads of these shipping firms were divulged, I think it's a safe bet to assume that one of the key issues in their discussions is who exactly is going to pay for these enhanced screening measures. Some are already speculating that whatever new measures are implemented, be it new technology or increased training for workers, that the shippers themselves will bear the financial burden. If that is indeed the case, then many analysts believe those costs would be passed on to consumers, which probably doesn't sit too well with the executives of these shipping companies.

Unlike the responses we've seen to other failed terror plots, I hope we see a more common sense approach to the way this issue is handled by the government and private sector. As the terrorists are well aware, the destruction of a cargo plane would not only cost people their lives, it could also have a substantial impact on the global economy, if shippers are forced ground flights and delay shipments.

One threat that has not been given a lot of attention with regards to passenger airlines is the potential dangers of in-flight Wi-Fi. The Association of Flight Attendants called on the government to ban Wi-Fi on flights last month, believing it to pose a serious security risk. British explosives consultant Roland Alford even went as far to tell New Scientist magazine that the availability of Wi-Fi on flights opens a potential "Pandora's box" for terrorist looking to bring down an airliner.

As we've seen over the past year, the threats to both passenger and cargo airlines are numerous. And while the TSA and DHS are being forced to spend their time defending passenger screening tactics, terrorists are spending their time developing new attack methods. It's understandable that people would have reservations about the use of body scanning machines and more invasive personal searches at our nation's airports, but quite frankly, there are more pressing air security issues that need to be attended to.

In other news
Energy requirement dropped for security devices, WikiLeaks founder arrested, IT security in the spotlight

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this week that exempts security and life safety devices from the "no-load" requirements of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007... WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has created an uproar over the release of classified diplomatic cables, was taken into custody this week by authorities in the UK for alleged sex crimes in Sweden... IT security firm Symantec released a report this week that shows cyber criminals are increasing their efforts to distribute malware... SIW also recently spoke with Symantec's Martin Lee and SecureWorks' Joe Stewart about the dangers botnets pose to corporate networks.