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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 15:24 GMT
Theft exposes security pass 'flaw'
Iris recognition
Iris recognition is being trialled at Heathrow Airport
Calls are being made for more stringent vetting of airport employees after a $6.5m robbery at Heathrow.

Thieves were apparently able to get "airside" to a controlled area at the airport on Monday without going through stringent security checks - suggesting they may have had valid security passes.

James McCracken - who worked on the electronic security system at the airport - says the heist had all the hallmarks of an inside job.

"To get airside, you have to pass really quite stringent tests," said the security expert.

Lapses in security have to be addressed - and fast

James McCracken

"Security at Heathrow is amongst the best in the world but clearly this could easily have been a terrorist attack and the lapses in security have to be addressed - and fast."

Security identity cards are issued at Heathrow by British Airports Authority - which manages the airport - but background checks on staff are the responsibility of the private companies which employ them.

Counter-terrorism checks

They are required to provide two references which the BBA says it is confident the companies take up.

People working in the most secure areas - on board the aircraft and sorting baggage - also have provide written references for the past 12 months of employment.

Certain workers, those providing security for example, are also subject to counter-terrorism checks, but BAA said they could not say what those were for security reasons.

The scene of the heist at Heathrow
Police at the scene of the heist at Heathrow

That companies do not always scrupulously check out references was shown when a reporter at a British newspaper was issued with a security pass after giving fake details.

In 2000, the News of the World journalist, posing as a freelance pilot, applied for a security pass from a company which issues them through the post.

He paid 10 and used a fictitious company name and a false date and place of birth.

Cracks in security

After buying a British Airways captain's uniform for 140, he used the fake ID to get airside at Birmingham Airport, where he was able to board a plane, where an engineer switched on the plane for him.

His security pass also got him into secure areas at Gatwick Airport.

Cracks in the ID card system were also exposed at Brussels Airport after a series of armed raids on planes last year.

Sixteen airlines stopped transporting valuables through the Belgian airport and demanded the government hold an investigation into the way thefts of ID cards were handled at the airport.

Again, it was felt the robbers could not have carried out their heists without the help of valid security passes.

Few alternatives

The problem facing the airline industry is to find a practical way to step up security.

Keiron Daly, editor of Air Transport Intelligence, said: "It is fairly obvious that with the amount of people being hired and fired at Heathrow, quite a lot of the checks are not what they should be.

"The question is what to do about it.

"There's a feeling in the industry that if someone has gone to the trouble of getting themselves hired as a pilot and they are a terrorist, there's not a lot you can do about it.

"But there is a lot of interest in using biometrics - like iris recognition - for foolproof identification.

"The problem comes 10 years down the line when someone with a squeaky clean record is hired by a terrorist organisation like al-Qaeda.

"That's when it all falls apart."

See also:

11 Feb 02 | UK
Great heists of our time
11 Feb 02 | England
Heathrow's latest heist
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