A Step In the Right Direction to Protect Our Surface Transportation Hubs

Security Threats

By Mike Ellenbogen, CEO, Evolv Technology

At various times since 9-11, the Federal government has issued mandates to require increased screening of travelers and luggage at airports. Many of these mandates spurred investments in innovative technologies that made air travel safer. When the government required advanced body scans after the “underwear bomber” attempted to blow up a Northwest flight on Christmas day, 2009, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worked with airports, airlines and technology vendors to create a process that was effective and preserved travelers’ dignity through the subsequent development and deployment of advanced automated software. Without the Federal deployment mandates, that software would still be sitting on the shelf.

Now, it’s time to start hardening the nation’s other transportation hubs – the train, bus, subway and ferry stations that are part of millions of Americans’ daily lives. I’m always hesitant to talk about potential targets for mass casualty attacks. I don’t want to give would-be terrorists any ideas, and I never want to be accused of fear-mongering as a way to generate sales. That said, it’s no secret that terrorist groups have been shifting their focus to these softer targets (Inspire magazine, Summer 2017, Issue 17). Surface transportation hubs provide big crowds in confined places, with very little security infrastructure to prevent an attack. Since there are no federal screening requirements, the ISIS-inspired lone wolf who detonated a pipe bomb during a Manhattan morning rush near the Times Square subway stations last December didn’t have to worry much about getting to his intended target. Only his ineptitude as a bomb-maker—he was the only person seriously injured–prevented a far more gruesome outcome.

The good news is that the topic is starting to be discussed where it really counts: in Washington DC. Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Securing Public Areas of Transportation Facilities Act of 2018. Should the Senate sign the measure into law, the Department of Homeland Security will be required to create a working group with transportation facility owners, service operators as well as equipment and services providers. The law would also require DHS to provide best practices and some assistance, should hub owners or transportation line-operators request it.

Clearly, this is a baby step—but it’s an important one that sends a strong signal to our industry. Now, we need continued efforts to make sure we don’t just end up with white papers and recommendations.

Ultimately, I believe we’ll need some type of Federal mandate to create the impetus to deploy technology and develop best practices, which will result in further innovation. Of course, this argument is blatantly self-serving. If every train, bus and subway terminal were required to screen even a small percentage of visitors, we believe it would create a $200 million market for Evolv and our competitors.

Self-serving or not, history suggests that the job of protecting our surface transportation hubs won’t get done without some appropriate government regulation. I know a lot of progressive, well-intentioned security chiefs who would like to make the necessary investments but can’t get the budget dollars to begin to implement screening processes.

What kind of mandates would do the trick? The key is to start small…but start. Requiring random screening of just five percent of visitors would make would-be attackers think twice before targeting mass transit and inspire pilot programs and other collaborations that could get the innovation flywheel spinning. Without a mandate, the new law could become one more authorization in a world that only pays attention to appropriations.

Mandates may be even more important to protecting surface transportation hubs, than they were for the aviation market. For airports, the TSA approves all of the screening processes, is the sole buyer and operator of all equipment and has ultimate responsibility for aircraft security. Protecting a train station is in some regards more complicated, given a patchwork of sometimes overlapping jurisdictions. The local transportation authority may own the main terminal, but rail operators are responsible for their own train cars. Other landlords may also be involved. The New York subway bomber, for example, tried to detonate his bomb in a walkway connecting two subway lines that are owned by different authorities.

Figuring out how to protect surface hubs will pay broader societal dividends. Some of these hubs deal with truly massive traffic volumes. More than 4.3 million people use the New York subway every day, nearly twice the number the TSA handles daily across all of the country’s airports. That makes them the perfect testbed for creating high-throughput screening processes, that could be used by entertainment venues, popular restaurants or any other potential targets, should the number of soft-target attacks continue to rise.

I’ve been in this business for nearly three decades. During that time, I’ve noticed that significant advances in security happen for one of only two reasons. The first is as a reaction to smart, appropriate mandates, by government agencies that understand the potential threats and the needs of the marketplace. The second is as a far-less considered knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy. That’s an easy choice.

Read about six ways screening technology can protect soft targets from terrorist attacks.

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