Over the years, mass transit hubs such as airports, train stations and ports have been a recurring setting for shootings, bombings and other violent attacks around the world. While the statistics on terrorist attacks and mass shootings suggest these events are rare, transit officials cannot afford to take these risks lightly. The fear alone of an attack is enough to put many commuters on edge, which can easily lead to other dangers, such as false alarms that can cause mass panic.

What's more, traditional security measures such as increased security personnel, additional checkpoints and metal scanners are fallible. These protocols may have issues catching a threat before it can occur and often cause disruption and frustration for commuters who must stop for security checks that cost them valuable time and invade their privacy.

Mass transit hubs could benefit from a system that can detect threats before they manifest and provide security alerts without violating the privacy of individuals in the area. Recent advances in radio frequency identification (RFID) technology may soon make this system a reality for transit hubs everywhere.

RFID object recognition

RFID uses radio waves to identify items or objects. Most applications of the technology involve the use of a series of RFID tags fitted to objects that can then be tracked through a reader device that relays the location of each tag to a central computer. Many transit hubs already employ some form of an RFID system that can track baggage, equipment or personnel for a more streamlined work process.

While the above description is the most typical design for an RFID system, recent innovations may allow for expanded use cases, such as detecting objects without the need for tracking tags. Known as radio-frequency-based intelligent proximity sensors, these devices can be strategically placed around an area to create a three-dimensional radio field. When an object enters this field, it disturbs the radio frequency and, depending on what frequency parameters have been set, can identify objects based on their size, shape and material composition.

When applied in a security context, RF-based intelligent proximity sensors could help unobtrusively scan travelers who are passing through a transportation hub to identify potential threats such as firearms, knives, explosives or other dangerous weapons. Organizations that use these systems will need to set specific frequency parameters for identifying such objects. Once a security alert is triggered for a potential threat, security personnel can be notified and sent to investigate. 

Protecting privacy

Whether it’s a TSA agent in an airport terminal or a transportation officer in a train station, these security professionals play a vital role in ensuring passenger safety through regular baggage checks and pat downs. However, these individuals need to take care not to unduly violate an individual’s privacy. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, especially when security officials adopt measures that can potentially introduce intentional or unintentional bias, such as “random” screening.

Major transit hubs can consider security measures such as RF-based intelligent proximity sensors to accurately identify potential threats in a non-invasive manner.

Discreet surveillance

Being able to discreetly observe and monitor high-traffic areas for suspicious objects has benefits for not just innocent travelers, but also for security personnel. When the system detects a potential threat, security officers in the vicinity can discreetly receive coded messages so as not to alarm nearby travelers. Officials can then track the suspicious individual and take that person aside for a search and questioning. In addition, since the system is looking for suspicious objects rather than people, this can significantly reduce the risk of racial profiling.

Handling potential security threats in this manner creates room for containment and de-escalation in the event of a real threat. It also gives officers a good reason for conducting a search, meaning they’ll spend less time on random screening and more time tracking genuine threats.

Commuters deserve to feel safe while traveling, and transit authorities want to ensure that safety. However, continuous monitoring for potential threats or suspicious persons can be incredibly difficult in a high-traffic environment, especially when there are concerns about invading an individual’s privacy.

Surveillance methods like RFID can provide a practical and privacy-conscious answer to this conundrum, one that more and more mass transit hubs are likely to implement in the near future.