The Digital Transformation of Airport Security (S1:E20)

The Digital Transformation of Airport Security

Digital transformation is everywhere, especially in security. At airports across the U.S., advanced security technologies are paving the way for passenger and employee safety. As security threats and passenger demand increase, the race to keep up with technology and regulations is critical. Clint Welch, Director of Aviation Security and Public Safety at San Diego International Airport, joins us to discuss how he faces these complex challenges.

Full Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:01):
You’re listening to Humans in Tech. Our podcast explores today’s most transformative technology and the trends of tomorrow, bringing together the brightest minds in and outside of our industry. We unpack what’s new in physical access, identity verification, cybersecurity, and IoT ecosystems. We reach beyond the physical world, discuss our digital transformation as a species, and dive into the emerging Figital experience. Join us on our journey as we discover just how connected the future will be, and how we will fit into that picture. Your host is Leigh Dow, VP of Global Marketing at Identiv.

Leigh Dow (00:43):
Welcome. Thanks for tuning in. I’m joined by Clint Welch, Director of Aviation Security and Public Safety at the San Diego International Airport. Appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today Clint.

Clint Welch (00:54):
Thank you, Leigh. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Leigh Dow (00:55):
Today we’re talking about security technology at airports here in the United States, which is always a very interesting topic. Obviously, airports are a very secure environment. Your airport saw about 15.6 million passengers in 2021, which was a 69% increase over 2022’s 9.2 million. How do you face the complex challenges of managing internal airport personnel, customs agents, security teams, combined with that increasing number of travelers post-pandemic?

Clint Welch (01:30):
So that’s a good question, Leigh. I think you really touched on it with the diversity of the groups of people you’re talking about in your question there. I think for us, the biggest challenge really comes in dealing particularly with employee transitions, especially if you look at contracted service providers around the airport. They’re servicing various areas, but not necessarily on a regular basis. Some of them on an infrequent basis, and that obviously creates access challenges for us, because what we’re looking to do is manage those folks who need that operational necessary access in a timely manner, and one that we can audit, and we can manage in a robust manner.

So one of the things that we always have faced is, our access control office, who’s managing the credentialing, the background investigations, and the issuance of ID, they work really hard with our systems analysts in developing, for your systems, robust door access groups for these folks, but it’s really the one-offs that have become a litmus test for how we manage access levels. So for us, the big challenge is how do we keep an ongoing audit and assessment process looking at things like these disparate organizations that don’t really fit the mold of, let’s say an airline tenant who has the standard access as most other airline tenants do? So I think that’s been the real challenge for us. Interestingly, passengers don’t present much of a challenge, except in the sense that these contracted service providers are responding to those increased travelers, and obviously the unique needs that they bring with them.

Leigh Dow (03:12):
I’ve worked in aviation for a very large part of my career, but not on the security side until I started working at Identiv. I went to the AAAE conference last year, and one of the things that I thought was really interesting to learn is that most U.S. airports are really forced to prioritize their immediate, their short-term needs over major infrastructure overhauls. So knowing that your airport does not fall into that category, can you comment on what your experience has been with aging terminals, and how does that differ from your approach to security?

Clint Welch (03:47):
So Leigh, with a bit of a chuckle, I will say we do fall into that category.

Leigh Dow (03:51):
Okay.

Clint Welch (03:52):
Just like any airport, security typically is one of those things where in times of financial crisis, or other challenging times, typically security training and safety are some of the first things to get reduced. I think for us, it comes down to, it is prioritizing short, medium, long-term goals, and trying to have a strategy for how to deal with those. You specifically talked about things like aging terminals. Since I’ve been in my role, one of the things I’ve always tried to look at is what are emerging technologies, but more importantly, what is the infrastructure that gets you the information to those technologies? So back, I’ll call it the old days, as people came up with really great ideas about emergent security technologies, the only way you were going to be able to transmit that amount of data was through fiber. Well, now we have the ability with new systems to transmit just through standard ethernet cabling.

So what I was always trying to do over the years is be proactive and say, “Let’s install that infrastructure whenever we’re doing any kind of project.” And you get folks going, “But you don’t have anything that’s going to use it right now.” I go, “Absolutely I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be required through some regulatory change to implement something that may need that type of infrastructure within the next two years.” Does anybody really want to take that gamble and that risk that while you’re doing, let’s say a million dollar project, putting in a hundred thousand dollars worth of cabling is not the ideal solution. You’d rather just wait and come back and put in cabling when you need it at a cost of three hundred thousand dollars, even though that might be only a year later. So I’ve tried to look at, particularly in our programs and projects as trying to be as forward thinking as I can to say, “I need this infrastructure, let’s go ahead and put it in, even if I never use it.” I can always repurpose it for something else.

Leigh Dow (06:03):
That’s a very strategic approach to take because you’re really building with the end in mind.

Clint Welch (06:07):
Yeah. Like everything else, I don’t have a crystal ball. I haven’t locked down the market on that, so I don’t know what the end looks like. I can think about what I would like the end to look like, and as long as I keep that kind of mindset, it does help me think about what I need to put in, and what my priorities are.

Leigh Dow (06:26):
The airport’s been working with Identiv and the Hirsch product line for years. Can you tell us which solutions are deployed and what’s kept this relationship so strong?

Clint Welch (06:35):
Sure. Obviously, we’re a Velocity client. We’ve been using Velocity since its first release. In fact, we were using Velocity in its previous rendition, prior to that. We do have an installation of Velocity Vision installed in a remote campus, but we’re getting ready to transition to that platform campus-wide, so that will be the new system handling all of our access control and VMS services for the airport. But I think the real key to especially success with this new terminal construction that we’re doing, that I mentioned in the beginning about a 3 billion dollar program, the real key is not just going to be the product. It’s also going to be the robust and stable vendor support that’s needed for that type of installation initiative.

Leigh Dow (07:24):
In your opinion, where is the future headed for airport and terminal security technology?

Clint Welch (07:30):
Again, let’s see my crystal ball.

Leigh Dow (07:32):
Yeah.

Clint Welch (07:33):
My crystal ball says wireless IoT. We’ve got to get to something that is not so dependent upon physical cabling. Particularly when you look at radio networks, other wireless networks, the ability to do things like over-the-air programming, over-the-air re-keying of encryption, those types of things, that’s going to be key to take that kind of process and technology, put it into an airport environment, because that’s going to make it that much easier for us to implement change rapidly, and be a little more dynamic. Do we need to, not just adjust to regulatory changes, but there might be other infrastructure passenger needs that come along that require us to adapt a little differently, and it’s got to be a little more flexible system than just pulling a bunch of hardware cable around.

Leigh Dow (08:32):
So this is a random question, but what’s it like to work at an airport every day? For me, because I worked in aviation for so long in aerospace, I still get like a little kid when I see planes taking off and landing, and stuff like that.

Clint Welch (08:46):
So, I actually get asked that question a lot. So, I have been here in San Diego for 28 years as of April the 1st. I have been, career-wise, in aviation for now over 35 years. I won’t tell you how old I am, but it is. There is a part of me… I joke with folks where I’m like, “In working in an airport so much, I hate to fly unless I’m the one doing the flying.” But like you, I look out the window and I enjoy watching the airplanes come in. I think, to your question, it’s really about the fact that it’s like you’re managing your own city.

Leigh Dow (09:29):
Oh I could see that.

Clint Welch (09:29):
You’re managing your own electrical services, your own water, your own plumbing, your sewer, all of these things, and so the unique thing about working in an airport, depending on the size of your airport, is you get to be almost like the mayor of your own city. You get to decide your future. You get to decide your fate in a much more manageable micro-environment, if you will, than you would in a larger municipality. I think particularly if you’re working for a political structure, like an airport authority, you get even that much more opportunity to work in a unique kind of micro-environment.

Leigh Dow (10:11):
That’s really interesting. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to work at an airport. I used to work in a building right next to the airport in Phoenix, and one of the conference rooms, when the airplanes would start to land, it looked like they were going to land right into the conference room based on the way the window was. It was always just a really neat experience to work in a building where you could see that all day long every day, but I’ve never actually worked within an airport. So, I was just curious.

Clint Welch (10:41):
Yeah, no, it is enjoyable. There’s a lot of days, like with many jobs, you’re going to come in, you have a standard routine of things that you’re going to do, but then there’s going to be the day where there’s an incident that occurs at a screening checkpoint. There’s an incident that occurs out on the airfield. There’s going to be the random bomb threat that gets called into the facility. So, just the varying types of problems that you unexpectedly will be faced with. I think that’s what really makes it a challenge, and makes it fun. One of my department’s changes now is we now oversee business continuity planning for our organization. So that’s been a change for me too, having come from, quite frankly, I started off in airfield operations, and aircraft maintenance, and then moving into law enforcement and security emergency preparedness, business continuity seems like a nice fit to that, but there are some unique challenges and ways of thinking that come along with business continuity planning that don’t always align necessarily with security and emergency preparedness. So, finding new things and being faced with new challenges is really what makes it interesting.

Leigh Dow (11:55):
Oh, I bet. So we ask everyone this question. Digital transformation is everywhere, especially in security. Any closing thoughts on living in a technology-centric, hyperconnected world?

Clint Welch (12:06):
Yeah. I take the examples of social media profiles. We’re all being data managed, or data mined. I don’t think anybody will disavow that, if you will. That, to me, is really going to be where we’re going to end up in terms of security. If we are individually managing profiles on social media and other connected platforms, we really have to start looking at security as an individually managed profile for that person, as I mentioned in one of the previous questions, taking things like access groups, which is the world we live in right now, we need to start being able to move more flexibly into individually managed access profiles and take people out of these group concepts. Also, the ability to leverage systems that we have and finding a way to do that cooperatively with the federal government, for example, where we’re doing credentialing and vetting, and how can we much more quickly through systems like identity management systems be able to get information, both threat information about the individual, other interesting or human-type information about somebody in our facility, and how we can quickly apply that to their individual access profile.

Leigh Dow (13:32):
Well, it was really great to have you on today, and I just personally want to say thank you for everything you do and your team does to keep people safe when they’re traveling.

Clint Welch (13:40):
Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

Leigh Dow (13:41):
Yeah, thanks.

Speaker 1 (13:42):
The problem isn’t security. It’s awareness. Velocity Vision is the future of visual surveillance, an intelligent video management solution that delivers real-time situational awareness in an open security platform. Integrate with your existing systems, verify your environment in one pane of glass, and increase the efficiency of your security operation. Get full control of your environment when and where you need it. Learn more at Identiv.com. Physical security, identity verification, the IoT, the hyperconnectivity of our lives will only grow more pervasive. As technology becomes more automated and experiences more augmented, it’s up to us to preserve our humanity and use new tools and trends for good. The only question is, are we up for the challenge?