It is Shockingly, Terrifyingly Easy to Breach Perimeter Security at Most Airports

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Feb. 20 2013 2:15 PM

It is Shockingly, Terrifyingly Easy to Breach Perimeter Security at Most Airports

Brussels Airport
Brussels Airport

Photo by BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images

I think we can all agree that the real world doesn’t have nearly enough heists. Smash-and-grabs, yes; drug-fueled residential burglaries, yes. But carefully choreographed master plans involving diamonds, disguises, and people who look like David Niven? We could always use more of those.

And so three cheers for the intrepid jewel thieves who made off with approximately $50 million worth of diamonds in Belgium the other day. Eight men disguised as police officers drove two vehicles through a hole in a fence at Brussels Airport, brandished some machine guns, and made away with the jewels, which had just been transferred from an armored truck to the cargo hold of a Zurich-bound airplane. The whole caper took about five minutes.

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There are many great things about this heist: its audacity, its precision, its similarity to the plot of a Guy Ritchie movie. But the part that really grabbed my attention was the fence. The thieves were able to cut a large hole in a perimeter fence at an international airport, drive a van and an Audi through it, and then, five minutes later, make their escape through that same hole, all without attracting attention from security. How was this possible? Were the guards tired from eating too much chocolate, or drinking too much fruit-flavored beer, or whatever else stereotypical Belgians consume? Just how secure are airport perimeters?

I can’t really speak for the entire world, but, if we’re talking about American airports, the answer is “not very.” There’s no consistent standard for airport perimeter security in America; its implementation and maintenance is left up to individual airports, not the Transportation Security Administration. The types of fences used vary widely, as does the assiduousness with which these fences are patrolled.

If you think that most airport fences are monitored by cameras, or motion sensors, or alarms that might deter potential fence-climbers, well, think again. According to congressional testimony from Rafi Ron, an airport security consultant and former director of security at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, “most of our airports today are still not protected by an operating perimeter intrusion detection systems [sic]. In other terms, we don’t know when a breach occurs.” Even when those systems do exist, they don’t always work; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paid Raytheon at least $100 million for a perimeter intrusion detection system, only to be embarrassed last year when a stranded, dripping-wet jet skier hopped a fence at John F. Kennedy International Airport and walked across the tarmac and into the Delta terminal without attracting any attention.

For all the money and attention that in-airport screening gets, the back doors to airports are, comparatively, wide open—and people go through them all the time. In March 2012, an Adderall addict named Kenneth Mazik crashed his Jeep through a fence at Philadelphia International Airport and drove it up and down various runways before being stopped. In November 2012, an employee at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, having forgotten his lunch or jacket or something, had a friend toss a bag containing the item over the perimeter fence. Unfortunately, the bag got stuck on the fence, and a video shows the employee actually climbing up on the fence to get it down. Security didn’t notice.

There’s more. In July 2012, a pilot named Brian Hedglin used a rug to cover the razor wire at the perimeter fence at Utah’s St. George Municipal Airport; he then climbed the fence and attempted to steal a SkyWest Airlines jet. (After crashing the plane in a parking lot, Hedglin shot himself in the head.) In 2010, a North Carolina teenager named Delvonte Tisdale stowed away in the wheel well of a Boeing 737; his mutilated body was later found in Milton, Mass., after having fallen from the sky when the landing gear went down. Investigators have speculated that Tisdale accessed the wheel well after climbing a perimeter fence at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

You get the picture. Perimeter security breaches happen all the time, and the fact that many of them are relatively benign doesn’t make the problem any less serious. This isn’t a dig at America’s airports (well, not entirely). They have miles of fencing to monitor, and limited budgets with which to do so; they are often located in urban areas, with neighbors who don’t want to live next door to a 12-foot electrified fence topped with razor wire. And, perhaps more relevant, these airports don’t appear to get much assistance from the TSA.

The TSA is supposed to help assess security levels at America’s airports, and to help airports patch their vulnerabilities. But in a 2011 congressional hearing on airport perimeter security, Rep. John F. Tierney noted that, in 2009, the Government Accountability Office found that the TSA had “failed to implement a national strategy to address perimeter security, and that only a small percentage of airports had completed joint vulnerability assessments.” The aviation director of the Charlotte, N.C. airport blasted the TSA for being arrogant and non-communicative. “Congress should redirect some of the available funding for airport security from TSA directly to airports,” he argued. “The operator is most familiar with the airport’s vulnerabilities and strengths and is well equipped to make effective enhancements.”

The testimony at the hearing made it very clear that airport security is only as strong as its weakest link. This seems self-evident. Yet, despite all the money and manpower wasted on airport security theater in this country and around the world, perimeter security remains so lax that a guy with a costume and some bolt cutters can make a hole large enough to drive a van through. This is great news for heist fans, to be sure. But it’s pretty alarming for everyone else.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.