Jul 1, 2002 12:00 PM

In today's highly charged, post-Sept. 11 aviation security climate, no airport employee or airline passenger in America, no matter how innocuous, senior, suspect or trusted, is above scrutiny.

At San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which houses the largest international terminal in North America, there are absolutely no exceptions to that rule. The airport is rated "Category X," a federal designation for a high-risk airport measured by the volume of planes taking off and landing there. Given its role as a major gateway to the vast Pacific region ! and the number of direct cross-country flights that originate there ! SFO is arguably an attractive point of origin to would-be terrorists.

Like all U.S. airports, SFO has been held accountable to higher standards for controlling access to its secured areas since Sept. 11. SFO, however, has been ahead of the access control curve for more than a decade: In the early '90s, the airport began using biometric hand geometry readers to validate access granted by its card and reader system ! a strategically deployed system that currently enrolls nearly 22,000 users. To date, SFO reremains the only U.S. airport to use biometrics as a dual access control layer, according to Mark Denari, manager, aviation security and special systems for the airport.

Since the early 1990s, Denari says SFO has maximized the capability of its access solution several times, and the airport has suffered no violations of its systems by anyone with criminal intent. He adds that partly because of the airport's deployment of the hand geometry readers, "we were the only airport to be mentioned by name as an access control innovator in the Aviation Security and Transportation Act's new security regulations."

SFO's most critical threat is not new, but it's one that has received heightened attention and led to unprecedented screening procedures in the past year: unauthorized introduction of a threat object such as an explosive device, a knife or a firearm that would assist in the hijacking of an aircraft.

Airline passengers are not, of course, the only purveyors of such a threat ! airport employees typically have more direct access to "secure areas." Those areas are defined as high-risk zones where access control is regulated by the Transportation Security Administration, (TSA), and where people and aircraft generally mix ! near the terminals, concourses and adjacent to aircraft themselves on the tarmac.

Toward that end, SFO's recent and future security endeavors have been intended to further shore up its access control function, Denari says.

At SFO, MDI magnetic stripe card and reader systems secure some 250 access portals in the airport's four terminals, and the portals that secure areas are further protected by Recognition Systems hand geometry technology, with both systems running in sync on a network administered by the airport's license and permit bureau. The hand readers, which analyze approximately 90 measurements of a hand's length, width, thickness and surface area and compare the data to a stored template, grant or deny an associated action with a match. According to Recognition Systems, the hand readers are used for various security functions at airports in other major cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Newark, N.J. They are also a component of The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's INSPASS program, in which frequent international travelers use a hand reader to verify their identity and bypass immigration lines. Airports in Orlando, Fla., and Salt Lake City are reportedly looking into using the readers for access control purposes similar to those of SFO.

"Clearly any access control system is simply a way to grant the privilege of accessing a door ! like a standard key," Denari says. Standard keys, however, can't positively identify the user. "At every portal that transitions directly from a public to a secure area at SFO ! such as ground level baggage claim ! we use both technologies for positive identification." He adds that the hand readers have a false accept rate of less than 0.01 percent.

Although virtually every major airport uses some type of card and reader system to regulate access to key areas, Denari explains that in 1999, a Department of Transportation audit found that most airports still needed to improve. Improvement was needed in terms of "the human error factor such as someone 'tailgating' on another person's access privileges," he says. "To resolve that threat and engineer out that human failure, we created security vestibules at all access points to secure areas, which has been a significant improvement."

The vestibules are what Denari describes as "point A & B portals." Elaborating on the original doors that separated people from secure areas, Denari's team designed 10-foot square enclosures on the secured sides that house galvanized turnstiles. Employees must present a card to access the exterior door and then scan both their card and their hand to access the turnstile, which allows only one user through per verification, preventing tailgating and retaining positive identification. "It's one thing to have high technology systems," Denari says, "it's another to have system design architecture in place that will resolve an issue."

In another instance of maximizing system capabilities, SFO, like all airports, was directed to limit access to secure areas to an absolute operational minimum to reduce risk by the TSA in the wake of Sept. 11.

According to Denari, the biometric solution already in place enabled SFO to do so with precision and efficiency. With the exception of law enforcement, first responders and emergency and fire personnel, most of the system's 22,000 users had their access privileges reduced by about 75 percent, restricting them to certain SFO terminals and limited areas within those terminals.

"It's an engineered programming solution that took significant hours to pull off," Denari explains. "We're getting into more dynamic and aggressive programming of the system, articulating who goes where and how. We're going to be challenging the system in ways we haven't previously to control the population, risk and vulnerability." To handle the challenge full-time, SFO will add a programmer to Denari's team to handle the task.

The vision for future security at SFO is to build on the operation's current strengths by becoming "more network-centric and less systems-centric," says Denari, who adds that an evaluation for an enhanced security operations center is under way at SFO. "We still need a more dynamic and active security environment ! we have more than 1,000 surveillance cameras trained on and recording access points, for example, but a more robust solution would be to have the access systems trigger certain camera activity that can be actively monitored on-site."

The SFO staff is ready for the task. In addition to the members of his aviation security group, Denari credits external law enforcement and fire personnel, which belong to dedicated airport bureaus of their respective municipal departments, as key team players. He also praises the facilities and operations personnel who maintain and troubleshoot the security systems, with assistance from the systems manufacturers. "They're all part of a very large cadre of professionals needed to run security at the airport reliably and effectively ! now and well into the future," says Denari.

Kate Henry is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems.

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