Good security is difficult. There are insider and outsider threats to prepare for, and the best defense includes continuous upgrades of security systems. A recent federal indictment concerning an alleged 18-year drug-smuggling operation among airport and Transportation Security Administration employees shows the value of strong security protocols that are changed and upgraded often enough that they cannot be easily circumvented by knowledgable insiders.
The use of airport and airline employees to smuggle drugs and other illicit contraband is not new. For example, a decade ago there was a scandal at an airport in Florida because airline baggage handlers were able to smuggle guns and drugs onto a plane. According to court documents, in 2007, two Comair baggage handlers were able to carry a duffel bag containing 14 guns and 8 pounds of marijuana onto a commercial plane in Orlando that was headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico. The men avoided detection, because they are airline baggage handlers who used their uniforms and legally issued identification cards to bypass security screeners and enter a restricted area before loading the contraband onto a plane. The men, who had passed federal background checks, used their knowledge of airport security protocols. The security protocols failed, and the men were caught because a source called a tip into the police.
Earlier that year, CBS News had revealed that “unlike passengers, pilots and flight attendants, some 700,000 airport workers with ID badges are allowed to completely bypass airport screening areas at virtually all our nation’s 452 commercial airlines.” Shortly after the Comair arrests, airports in Florida strengthened security protocols for employees and the Transportation Security Administration also heightened screening requirements.
But a few years later, there were arrests in an alleged gun-smuggling ring in which “weapons were smuggled from Atlanta to New York in a passenger’s carry on luggage on board passenger jets.” One of the people arrested in the December 2014 incident was a ramp agent and baggage handler for Delta Airlines. The legal documents “noted that as a Delta employee he had access to secure areas not subject to TSA screening.” A few months later, the Department of Homeland Security announced more changes to security protocols for airport and airline employees, including when they’re traveling as passengers.
And then just a couple of weeks ago, the Justice Department announced that 12 current and former TSA and airport employees have been “charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine” — and the alleged drug-smuggling operation is believed to have spanned 18 years, from 1998 t0 2016. The defendants are alleged to have used their inside knowledge of airport and airline operations to get suitcases containing cocaine through security (either by smuggling the contraband luggage past security or by using a member of the conspiracy to clear the baggage at a checkpoint) and onto airplanes. For example, the Justice Department says: “After the suitcases had been cleared by TSA members, [one defendant] took the suitcases to their designated flight, making sure no narcotic K-9 unit or law enforcement personnel were present when the suitcase went from the checkpoint to the airplane.”
It is likely that we will soon hear that the airports, airlines, and Homeland Security will be stepping up security protocols at airports. What all of these incidents tell us is that security can be exploited by insiders. So one important security protocol to implement is continuous, unexpected audits by outside parties. It is far better to have a trained, trusted outsider show you where to shore up your security than to have a crime or scandal expose your security failures to the world.