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Pekoske Focused on TSA Agility, Adaptability Amid Evolving Threats and Technologies

COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that "we must adapt quickly to all threats," the administrator said, noting that "just like 9/11, COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on transportation."

The Transportation Security Administration is focused on getting ahead of an evolving threat landscape throughout all transportation sectors with technological advances and agility leading the way, Administrator David Pekoske said today.

In a State of Transportation Security address to open Transportation Security Symposium 2022 hosted by the Government Technology and Services Coalition, Pekoske predicted that air travelers would see the number of fellow travelers return to pre-pandemic levels this summer. And this year, with a focus that began in 2021, TSA plans to place “much greater emphasis” on threats to surface transportation and cybersecurity threats.

“Everything we do supports the mission of protecting the nation’s transportation system,” he said.

Pekoske broadcast to the webinar from the agency’s new headquarters in Springfield, Va., where the second floor is dedicated to collaboration space including the Mission Hall to reflect upon TSA’s journey since the agency’s founding after the 9/11 attacks. “I think about how united this country was,” the administrator said of the days after the attacks that would “inspire thousands of Americans in all walks of life to serve their country in ways they never imagined.” That included many people from diverse backgrounds often making “huge career shifts” to join TSA, which “made it into the dynamic organization it is today.”

In the past two decades, TSA’s mission and operations, supported by a wide array of state-of-the-art detection technology, have evolved across entire landscape, Pekoske said. Hijackings of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s continued into the 2000s with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks driving major and lasting reform in how passengers and cargo are screened and airports are secured. The 2010s saw attack tactics using concealment in electronics as well as targeting the public side of airports, and the 2020s have brought more evolution in the hostile actors — both state and non-state — and their choice of tactics and targets; Pekoske cited concerns about lone wolves, domestic violent extremists, and cyber attackers, as well as challenges to detect, track, and identify unmanned aerial systems that could have hostile intent against airports and other transportation venues.

While the common thread is “adversaries intently focused on finding a point of attack” and waiting for an opportunity to strike, Pekoske noted that threat actors are more tech-savvy than before.

And the pandemic underscored that the threats aren’t just manmade: COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that “we must adapt quickly to all threats,” the administrator said, noting that “just like 9/11, COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on transportation.”

“The pandemic’s been really tough on TSA,” Pekoske said, noting the “heavy toll” of 36 TSA employees dying from COVID-19 infections. “Our workforce has proven to be incredibility resilient.”

TSA is focused on agility, its workforce, and innovation to ensure the agency remains at the forefront of information-sharing and developing solutions to complex problems, he stressed.

“Our mission requires us to remain flexible and adaptable,” Pekoske said. “…Our greatest advantage in today’s world is agility.”

While reminding federal agencies of the need to stay nimble, the pandemic also reaffirmed the pivotal role of technology at TSA with threat-detection capabilities that reduce physical contact such as biometric screening. “Biometrics are a powerful tool in the security environment and we will continue to ensure stringent privacy protections,” he said, as well as “carefully considering” variables such as error rates and passenger concerns to ensure a strong relationship of trust between TSA and travelers.

An identity management roadmap is scheduled to be released within a few weeks in which agencies will lay out vision, goals, objectives, and the path forward.

Pekoske said artificial intelligence is “a promising horizontal emerging technology” that can supplement vetting systems. Positive and negative potential aspects of AI “make it essential for DHS to take a proactive role” in the future of this technology, he said, noting that AI and machine learning could assist with passenger and bag screening — and even, farther down the road, detecting prohibited weapons.

The administrator emphasized the importance of relationships to achieving TSA’s mission, from the open architecture agreement that promises to improve how all transportation security agencies and stakeholders share data to leveraging what industry, academic, and international partners bring to the table. Pekoske lauded his agency’s $481 million in contract awards to small businesses last year as TSA exceeded all goals in the socioeconomic categories. “We are constantly striving to minimize hurdles,” he said,  including compressing timelines and developing new pathways for emerging innovation. Plexiglass barriers that were quickly erected to help protect both employees and passengers from COVID-19 transmission were the result of a small-business award, and the pandemic ushered in more opportunities for contactless technology.

“The next generation of solutions will only be developed in partnership with emerging technologies providers,” he said, adapting and innovating together to meet the evolving threat landscape.

During the Transportation Security Symposium 2022 session, former Deputy TSA Administrator Patricia Cogswell and former Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis Steve Karoly — both, along with Pekoske, contributors to HSToday’s 9/11 Commemoration that studied the future of various aspects of homeland security — stressed that the future holds many opportunities for the private sector to partner with TSA as both threats and solutions evolve.

The “highly interdependent” nature of the transportation sector makes it “a very attractive target for bad actors,” Karoly said, noting that TSA “has really matured along their path” from more of a reactive agency in its first 10 years — when the attack attempts of shoe bomber Richard Reid and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made new stages of screening standard — to a “very proactive” agency today working to get ahead of threats with screening technologies.

Transportation systems could also face complex attacks combining methods such as cyber, insider threats, and drones. “Those are kinds of things they need to think about for the future,” he said, emphasizing that cyber terrorism is “as easy as an insider sending an email.”

Cogswell recommended that potential partners consider the range and ease of threats when considering how industry innovations could support the TSA mission. “The transportation industry is not a monolithic entity,” she said. Decision-makers will be considering “what is the actual risk if that threat materialized” and whether, if a security-based decision must be made, that can be coupled with something that improves the customer experience — such as getting through a checkpoint faster — to ensure the greatest return on investment.

Karoly recommended that potential TSA partners pay attention to the forthcoming identity management roadmap for “great nuggets in there” that could detail future requirements or guide research and development — also, “cybersecurity is big deal” and potential TSA partners should engineer that into solutions, even putting white-hat hackers on their development team. “It really does take a village,” he noted.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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