Airport Security

Airport security takes as its priority the safety of aircrafts, passengers, crew, and cargo traveling from one destination to another. A number of different security measures exist in various airports within the United States and globally to maintain this safety. The increasing volume of travel and cargo moved as a result of globalization and the increased threat posed by transnational terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have prompted major upgrades to security tools utilized by airports and government agencies. Profiling and interviewing techniques, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, biometric data, backscatter X-ray machines, millimeter wavelength detectors, passport checks, and data interception have become common practices for major international airports. These surveillance measures provide airport security officials with a number of critical tools for intercepting threats made to the safety and security of passengers, but these tools may create risks to the integrity of passengers’ privacy, data, and personal information.

With the notable exceptions of pandemics such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, hoof and mouth disease, and the avian and swine flus that have caused significant economic and travel disruptions, there have been several notable examples of human-based terrorism. The 1972 Tel Aviv’s Lod International Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) massacre saw 26 people killed and 86 injured. The bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 saw 329 people killed. The hijacking and intentional crashes of American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 (9/11) resulted in the deaths of 246 passengers aboard the aircrafts and 2,731individuals on the ground (2,606 people in the World Trade Center, where the first two aircrafts crashed, and 125 personnel in the Pentagon, where American Flight 77 crashed). The December 22, 2001, failed shoe bombing attempted by Richard Reid on American Airlines Flight 63 revealed significant gaps in both French and American securities.

Subsequent acts of terrorism and violence at airports have compounded security restrictions and surveillance directed toward passengers in the post-9/11 period. An August 10, 2006, transatlantic aircraft plot caused heightened security at airports for the three implicated nations: (1) the United States, (2) Canada, and (3) Great Britain. This plot featured the targeting of 10 American and Canadian airlines from Heathrow International Airport. Three years later, the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, failed to detonate the plastic explosive within his underwear en route to Detroit, Michigan, from Amsterdam. The former event led to the restriction of gels and other carry-on items, whereas the latter prompted the need for full-body scanners and other detection suits in airports. The shooting of a screening agent, Gerardo Hernandez, in November 2013 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in the passenger screening area sparked the tightening of security at airports. The Gerardo Hernandez Airport Security Act requires the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate improved emergency management plans with national airports. These breaches have fostered increased escalation in security measures. Each of these incidents reveals limitations surrounding detection, surveillance, evaluation of passenger behavior, and security presence.

Profiling and Interviewing

Closed-Circuit Television

CCTV coverage allows for sensitive points and crowd and/or passenger behavior to be observed from a safe distance. The strength of CCTV monitoring is its ability to go undetected within terminals as cameras are designed to blend into the architecture of the terminal. The limits of this medium of surveillance include data storage for digital recordings and/or video recordings. The detail of recordings may be restricted due to the sophistication of the software used. The visibility of distant objects may also be restricted depending on the model of the camera being used. The transition to modernize CCTV capabilities and coverage at international and national airports in the United States is an ongoing project. For example, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the department responsible for airline security, allotted approximately $4.9 million, as of 2009, to install CCTV systems at Philadelphia International Airport in order to improve surveillance coverage. Likewise, as of 2012, LAX has undertaken a CCTV enhancement project totaling more than $50 million to improve the coordination of camera feeds through the NICE video management system. The LAX enhancement project brought the number of CCTV cameras from 1,000 to approximately 3,000 in an effort to address issues of coverage, evidence collection, and coordination between feeds. Overall, LAX has spent approximately $1.6 billion from September 11, 2001, to 2012 on security infrastructure.


Biometric screening technologies such as facial recognition software have seen marked improvements of enhancing screening at airports as they screen out individuals who match images held within a digital data bank. Facial recognition software, as a subcategory of biometrics, utilizes specific facial characteristics of an individual to determine a person’s identity based on a passport photo or images held in terrorist, law-enforcement, or no-fly databases. Biometrics is the use of specific biological characteristics of individuals to determine their identity. Facial recognition software utilizes e-gates, CCTV, face scanners, and/or security-operated cameras to take a photo of a passenger and compare that photo with those within a database. This measure is unable to evaluate the intentions of the individuals who are not prior offenders. The system may also yield false positives or fail to work at certain distances. In addition, the software cannot see through facial coverings. As of 2001, Logan Airport, Massachusetts; Oakland International Airport, California; T. F. Green Airport, Rhode Island; and Fresno Yosemite International Airport, California, had adopted facial recognition software. Heathrow Airport, London, in 2008 and the Cardiff Airport, Wales, in 2009 adopted facial recognition software. In 2014, the Brussel International Airport made use of facial recognition software. The 2014 Russian Winter Olympic Games at Sochi saw use of facial recognition to screen athletes, spectators, and dignitaries attending the Olympics.

Backscatter X-Ray Machines

Backscatter X-ray machines are whole-body scanners (WBS) that utilize low-intensity X rays to scan the body for hidden weapons, metals, and other possible concealed objects. The X rays scan only the body’s exterior to generate an image and to reveal any concealed objects. WBS have replaced metal detectors in many airports due to metal detectors’ failing to detect biological, chemical, and nonmetallic weapons. The average scan takes about 15 seconds. The inability of the backscatter X-ray scan to penetrate the body makes it unable to detect drugs that may have been ingested or other objects that may be held within the body for the purposes of smuggling. The duration for which the images can be stored remains largely unregulated internationally. The graphic detail of the images, as well as the possibility of images leaking to the public, has prompted numerous privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union fielded numerous complaints with the U.S. Congress over the use of full-body scanners as an invasion of privacy. In 2007, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in San Francisco, California, ruled that airport searches of passengers are reasonable and do not require consent. As of 2014, the TSA had deployed 700 WBS across the United States. The scanners prove useful in detecting hidden objects, concealed weapons, improvised explosive device components, and narcotics. However, the scanners require a TSA viewer to be always present and focused in order to effectively carry out a thorough inspection of the image. In addition, scanners have presented a high rate of failure in detecting biological and explosive substances. The high failure rate of detection has led the U.S. policymakers to allow passengers to request a pat down instead of entering the WBS. Backscatter X rays were banned in the European Union Airports in 2012 due to privacy and health concerns.

Millimeter Wavelength Detectors


Passports are used in a variety of ways to verify the identity of passengers. The passport can be encoded with data that allows passengers to easily pass through security checkpoints once they have gone through prescreening. As with the TSA Pre✓™, passengers who have already gone through this process enter a reduced level of surveillance. Passports pose a number of challenges to airport security. The possibility of forged credentials is high. The e-passport is the latest generation of information cards offered by the International Civil Aviation Organization as well as national governments such as the United States and member states of the European Union. The e-passport, while allowing for expedience, has produced a number of problems. In 2012, the International Civil Aviation Organization estimated that in the United States alone, more than 72 million e-passports were in circulation. The e-passports employ radio-frequency identification (RFID) to store and transmit biometrics stored on a microchip. RFID allows for personal information to be confirmed and viewed by airport scanners. Biometric data stored by the e-passport can include the optional facial image, fingerprints, and iris data. E-passports minimize the likelihood of forgeries and work to suppress human smuggling and trafficking. However, storing the data digitally presents a number of critical threats, from hackers to transnational terrorism. The RFID feature of e-passports allows them to be tracked, allows data to be both skimmed and cloned, and creates a possibility of both passive and digital eavesdropping when the card is not shielded. In addition, the security of the connection between the chip reader and the chip on the card is a potential point of attack for hackers. The ability to read the chips and ensure the integrity of the data also presents a substantial cost to the airport screening facilities. The chip-reading terminals must be protected from sabotage and tampering. Finally, the risk of encountering e-passports that have undergone chip substitution or photo tampering on the chip reflects another layer of risk that airport security must be attentive to.

Data Interception

James FitzGerald

See also Airport Terminal Security Screenings ; Border Patrol Checkpoints ; Closed-Circuit Television ; Passenger Data ; Passenger Profiling

Further Readings

“Airport Starts Facial Recognition.” BBC News (November 17, 2009). (Accessed July 2014).

Amoore, Louise and Alexandra Hall. “Taking People Apart: Digitised Dissection and the Body at the Border.” Society and Space, v.27 (2009).

Armstrong, James. “CSEC Tracked Travellers Using Wi-Fi at Major Canadian Airport: Report.” Global News (January 31, 2014). (Accessed July 2014).

Cendrowicz, Leo Can. “Airport Body Scanners Stop Terrorist Attacks?” Time (January 5, 2010).,8599,1951529,00.html (Accessed July 2014).

Elias, Bart. “Airport Body Scanners: The Role of Advanced Imaging Technology in Airline Passenger screening.” Congressional Research Service (2012). (Accessed October 2017).

Garrett, Ronnie L. “LAX Beefs Up Security With Upgraded CCTV, Access Control & Badging Systems.” Airport Improvement Magazine (September 2012). (Accessed October 2017).

Hoepman, Jaap-Henk, et al. “Crossing Borders: Security and Privacy Issues of the European e-Passport.” Lecture Notes in Computer Science, v.4266 (2006).

Jeng, Aalbert B. and Lo-Yi Chen. “How to Enhance the Security of e-Passport.” Machine Learning and Cybernetics, v.5 (2009).

Juels, Ari, et al. “Security and Privacy Issues in e-Passports.” Security and Privacy for Emerging Areas in Communications Networks, (2005).

Lombard, Etienne. “Bombing Out: Using Full-Body Imaging to Conduct Airport Searches in the United States and Europe Amidst Privacy Concerns.” Tulane Journal of International and Comparative Law, v.337 (2010–2011).

McLay, Laura A., et al. “Risk-Based Policies for Airport Security Checkpoint Screening.” Transportation Science, v.44/3 (2010). (Accessed July 2014).

Persico, Nicola and Todd Petra E.. “Passenger Profiling, Imperfect Screening, and Airport Security.” American Economic Review, v.95/2 (2005).

“Pre ✓™ Begins at John F. Kennedy International Airport.” U.S. Transportation Security Administration. (February 29, 2012). (Accessed October 2017).

Salter, Mark B., ed. Politics at the Airport. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Sweet, Kathleen M. Aviation and Airport Security: Terrorism and Safety Concerns. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004.

“TSA Announces $4.9 Million for Airport Surveillance at Philadelphia International Airport” (Press release). U.S. Transportation Security Administration (October 19, 2009). (Accessed July 2014).

“TSA Tightens Security, Requires Some U.S.-Bound Travellers to Turn on Phones.” CBC News (July 6, 2014). (Accessed July 2014).

Weikel, Dan. “House Passes Bill to Improve Airport Security in Wake of LAX Shooting.” LA Times (July 22, 2014). (Accessed October 2017).

Weston, Greg,, et al. “CSEC Used Airport Wi-Fi to Track Canadian Travellers: Edward Snowden Documents.” CBC News (January 30, 2014). (Accessed October 2017).

Zureik, Elia and Mark B. Salter, eds. Global Surveillance and Policing: Borders, Security, Identity. Portland, OR: Willan, 2005.