Airports and Security – Complex Adaptive Opponents and 16-Year Olds

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Last month, we discussed the 16-year old who easily slipped past security at the World Trade Center site (see:  Teen Easily Slips Past Security at WTC) -this month, a young man jumps a fence at a major airport, undetected.  Guy Higgins looks at the serious questions of defense vs. offense.

On Sunday, April 21st, a sixteen-year-old male, having climbed a security fence during the night, crossed the ramp at San Jose International Airport and clambered into the left main mount wheel well of an Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 737 bound (unbeknownst to the teen) for Maui.  Several hours later, the teen was seen at the airport on Maui and apprehended as he wandered around the airport-parking ramp.

In the last 67 years, more than 105 people (that we know of) have stowed away on airplanes in a similar manner.  That’s about one and a half such incidents per year.  A serious question that needs to be asked today is, “How, in the face of extremely intense and focused security, could an inexperienced teen, without any sophisticated planning or subterfuge, have penetrated a major airport’s security perimeter and gained access to an airplane without being detected and arrested?”


Already, a chorus of voices is asking that question.  The details that will answer that question remain unknown – at this time.  The TSA and the FAA and the San Jose police will be reviewing all available data, including the recordings made of airport security sensors.  The details of this instance are less important than the larger questions of, “Can security be improved?” and “Can security be made foolproof?”

The answer to the first question is unequivocally yes.  Security professionals can always correct weaknesses or failings in security systems and processes.  There are, however, three problems:

  1. Financial cost – It’s possible to simply line the perimeter of the facility to be secured with guards, should-to-shoulder and replace them every hour so that their concentration doesn’t wane.  As a back up, a larger, more sensor-dense security system can be put in place with more people to monitor the sensors and change those people on a very frequent basis.  The problem is that such solutions are so expensive that they would, effectively, raise the cost of air travel to the point where almost no one would be willing to pay the price.
  2. Societal cost – At Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the security is both exceptionally effective and (to Americans) incredibly burdensome.  Passing through security involves, lengthy questioning – multiple times.  It involves profiling.  It is neither customer friendly nor accommodating.  Americans bridle at current TSA practices – it’s unlikely that much lengthier and intrusive security would be accepted.
  3. Effectiveness in the face of Complex Adaptive Systems – A complex adaptive system is comprised of two or more participants, each of whom can sense their environment and respond by adapting their behavior to changes in the environment.  This means that as we (that would be the good guys) change and improve security processes, they (that would be the bad guys) will see what’s changed (or will figure it out), and they will change their behavior to circumvent the new security.  

Maintaining or enhancing security under attack from a complex, adaptive opponent is, foundationally, a defensive problem, and, by definition, the offense always maintains the advantage of acting first.  The defense (security) can anticipate changes in attack strategies or even specific attacks, but remains defensive over the long run.  

The best way to maximize security effectiveness is through the regular use of unannounced exercises or drills.  The certain knowledge that once a month or once a quarter, someone will make a serious attempt to breach security tends to increase the attention to duty of the human part of a security system and creates regular opportunities to find and fix security system weaknesses – without waiting for the bad guys.  Such regular exercises can help move the complex adaptive advantage to the defense by creating positive (improved security) change more quickly than our complex adaptive opponents can sense and adapt.

So, how did the teenager get onto Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45?  We will most probably find out and we will put improvements in place to close that weakness – but a bigger question will remain, are we (the good guys) conducting the exercises necessary to increase the speed of security adaption/change, and are we extracting the maximum benefit from those exercises we do conduct?


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