The security week that was: 06/11/10

The risk of abandoned bags

There is a new report out from the FBI warning law enforcement agencies about a new terrorist approach. According to the report, terrorists will often leave suspicious bags and packages in public locations, but the packages and bags are actually harmless, filled with innocuous materials.

The FBI report had the following to say: "The stated goal of the campaign was to exploit desensitization of first responders caused by response fatigue to suspicious, but harmless items. The poster suggested packing bags with innocuous items and placing them in public areas has the capability to occupy response assets and disrupt public infrastructure and transportation."

So, what should first responders do? Should they be ignoring bags unless there is real reason to believe the bag or package is a threat? Or should they respond to every suspicious, unattended bag or package as if it is a real bomb?

It's a tough question. On the one hand, if Islamic terrorists do actively leave lots of suspicious, unattended bags in train stations, in popular shopping areas, on buses, etc., this clearly could tax first responder resources heavily. And that means two things: 1) it means a great expense, since rolling out a bomb squad takes time and costs money, and 2) as the article and report indicates, it could desensitize our responders into potentially ignoring real bombs.

Long before this FBI report surfaced, I asked former Maryland Transit Administration Chief of Police Douglas Deleaver the same question. I asked him whether he would respond to every abandoned bag as if it were a bomb. He emphatically said, "Yes." Doug recognized that this kind of tactic can have two purposes for the terrorists. The first is desensitization. The second, he said, is that potential terrorists might use this tactic to study how first responders actually respond. The danger in not responding is that terrorists would be assured that dropping a real bomb in a crowded area is unlikely to obtain a response. If they knew they wouldn't receive a law enforcement response, the terrorists would be emboldened to use abandoned bags as real bombs. Doug's point was that law enforcement personnel, especially those in common "soft targets" like buses, train stations, and crowded areas, have to ignore the costs, be vigilant against desensitization and respond to every potential incident as if it were real.

Chief Deleaver spoke on this topic and other aspects of mass transit security in a now-archived webinar titled "Securing Public Transportation Systems". I encourage you to view the archived program, which also featured presentations from Mass Transit Magazine's Editor Fred Jandt, ADT (integrating security for public transit systems) and Hirsch Electronics (access control for public transit facilities).

[Speaking of webinars, if you oversee contract security services, you're going to be interested in our June 24 program on Airport Security Contracting Best Practices. The program features presentations from the former head of security at Denver International Airport and the current head of security at Portland International Airport. Registration, like all web-based seminars, is free, and the program will be of special interest to security directors, consultants, aviation managers and contract security businesses.]

A technology response is also appropriate here if the FBI is right that Islamic terrorists are going to use harmless bags to burden our responders. Two recent improvements in video surveillance systems have been 1) faster access to video surveillance data and 2) automated identification of events.

On the automatic identification side, there are scores of companies in the video analytics field that have workable solutions for "object left behind" incidents. These analytics companies have been showing their wares at the tradeshows for years and the systems are reportedly improving in their efficiency. Adoption of this technology has been slow (cost, false positives, and time required for a high-quality installation have been the intial factors that have slowed adoption), but if we see a strong influx of suspicious bags and packages, these analytics technologies could really explode.

Beyond analytics, newer video management systems and plug-ins like the BriefCam video synopsis system, means video surveillance users can access archived video faster than ever. Centralized VMS systems means security officers and police officers don't have to run all around the buildings to access DVR monitors and VCRs, but can quickly scan through an entire facility's video data in one location. Responders who find a potential package bomb in a train station can theoretically find the video within minutes and use the video to attempt to ascertain whether they were dealing with a forgetful passenger or a would-be terrorist. Finally, the overall increase in user of cameras in soft-target environments means better follow-up, so that police can track down those persons using would-be package bombs to tax our law enforcement response abilities.

In any case, the picture this FBI report paints is not a pretty one. There is no easy answer or way to stop such attempts (unless we make forgetfullness a crime), and the man-hours to respond to an increase in would-be bombs is not going to be cheap. But as Chief Deleaver noted, it's something we have to do if we are going to keep our nation secure.