Guest Opinion | The data trail: Best vector to secure aviation

The response to the failed plot to blow up airplanes using liquid explosives showed progress in homeland security while offering a potent reminder of ever-present security threats. The emergency measures that rippled across global aviation were an understandable, near-term response.

But we must recognize that the most significant vulnerabilities are beyond airport security checkpoints, which, although they may be the last line of defense, are not necessarily the best defense.

We need to focus attention and resources on the way that cargo, money, vessels and information move through the interconnected global economy. Effectively following and understanding the information trail, such as electronic records of chemical purchases, financial transfers, travel documents, phone records, fundraising and surveillance activities, offers the best chance to build a reliable firewall between terrorists and safe travel.

Unfortunately, because of the way government programs and systems are organized, we run the risk that future plots will go undetected. Systems for border and transportation security remain fragmented. The intelligence community has dozens of databases that cannot talk to each other. Credentialing programs are piecemeal and not part of a coherent identification strategy.

Numerous, distinct databases have information on visa holders, permanent residents, asylum seekers and other entrants into the United States. Three different offices within the Homeland Security Department handle risk assessments for port and maritime security. These silos exist, in part, because of bureaucratic turf protection, but also because of the dizzying array of items and transport modes in the global economy: passengers, luggage, cargo, planes, trains, ships, trucks.

A coherent vision for how to deal with all the pieces is hard to develop. One solution is to focus more on the similarities between goods and services and modes of transport than on the differences.

To simplify matters, the U.S. government and its partners should agree that the global economy could be boiled down to five "flows:" people, goods, vessels, money and information. This concept will make it easier for policymakers, security officials and the private sector to manage and analyze information worldwide and better detect and disrupt terrorists. The smart use of information can reduce the need to operate in a mode of permanent crisis.

In the London plot, for example, security officials might not have felt so strongly compelled to scramble and re-do screening procedures and retrofit technologies as their primary response.

The U.S. government can take several important steps to enhance aviation security. First, it should implement its own recommendations from the National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel, particularly those concerning international travel documents, capacity-building for security in developing nations, and cooperation with international organizations such as Interpol and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Second, it should resolve privacy disagreements with the European Union on passenger prescreening. We need to match watch-list information against passenger data in real time. Innovative "anonymization" technologies could help us to find common ground with our European allies and achieve greater security and privacy.

Third, DHS should refocus efforts to establish an effective, risk-based system for prescreening airline passengers, combined with better detection and behavioral screening tools.

As a country, we must do a better job of managing and analyzing the flood of information that can help us discover terrorists before it is too late. Five years after Sept. 11, 2001, connecting the dots remains a life or death issue.

W. Scott Gould is vice president for public sector strategy at IBM Business Consulting Services and the co-author of "Global Movement Management: Securing the Global Economy." Daniel Prieto is senior fellow and director of the Homeland Security Center at the Reform Institute.

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