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TSA’s Major Acquisition Programs Assessing AI and Remote Screening Technologies

Based on system-focused vulnerability assessments, the government watchdog says the systems are still vulnerable to insider threats and will be vulnerable when connected to a network or another system.

In its annual assessment of the Department of Homeland Security’s major acquisition programs, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that most of the programs it reviewed were meeting their cost and schedule goals by the end of FY 2022. Most of the other programs were not yet required by policy to have an approved program baseline.

DHS’ major acquisition programs include systems for operations like screening travelers and their belongings, such as the Transportation Security Administration’s Checkpoint Property Screening System (CPSS) and Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) programs.

The CPSS program is replacing aging, two-dimensional Advanced Technology (AT) x-ray machines used as the primary screening system for passenger carry-on items at airport checkpoints. GAO reported in April that CPSS officials plan to procure 2,263 systems with enhanced capabilities, including computed tomography (CT), which provides three-dimensional imaging and improved detection of explosives, weapons, and other prohibited items. CPSS officials are procuring the systems in four configurations—AT/CT, base, mid-size and full-size—to provide flexibility at airport checkpoint facilities with varying sizes and passenger volumes. The program’s life-cycle cost estimate remains nearly the same as last year, at $1.67 billion. 

CPSS is planning to develop program schedule goals incrementally. The program achieved Increment 1 initial operational capability (IOC) in January 2022. As of September 2022, according to program officials, CPSS deployed 473 of 771 systems needed to reach Increment 1 full operational capability (FOC). TSA expects FOC for Increment 1 by September 2025 and CPSS officials are currently planning for Increment 2, which is expected to provide TSA network connectivity to the systems as well as other advantages.

According to program officials that GAO spoke with, the CPSS program has demonstrated through testing that five systems (one base, three mid-size, and one full-size) have the capability to replace currently fielded systems. However, the watchdog is concerned that these configurations may have limitations with reliability or throughput. In addition, GAO has called for more testing to assess the systems’ cyber resilience. Based on system-focused vulnerability assessments, the watchdog says the systems are still vulnerable to insider threats and will be vulnerable when connected to a network or another system. While Increment 1 systems are not connected to the TSA network, Increment 2 systems are expected to be network-connected and program officials therefore plan to evaluate these systems’ cybersecurity to obtain Authority to Operate.

Steve Karoly, Executive Vice President at K2 Security Screening Group and former Acting Assistant Administrator for the TSA Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis told Homeland Security Today that TSA has been researching, testing, and evaluating technologies for years to make airports more secure and to speed up the overall checkpoint screening process, including the new CPSS that screens carry-on property in 3D.  

“Before these technologies get approved for deployment, they go through a rigorous test and evaluation process to ensure the system is operationally effective and suitable for use in airports,” Karoly said. “During this testing, TSA documents the capabilities and limitations of the technology that it uses to further develop their pre-planned product improvement strategy. As these CPSS technologies get deployed across the 450+ regulated airports, TSA will deploy upgrades throughout the lifecycle of these technologies to minimize any existing or newly discovered vulnerabilities.”

As an example, to address future throughput concerns, Karoly said TSA is assessing numerous solutions and improvements to the CT scanners to include the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Remote Screening operations. 

“Today, AI capabilities are used in the automated threat detection algorithms used to screen checked baggage,” Karoly explained. “Known as ‘Image on Alarm’, AI helps detect suspicious items, and only those checked bags that have or possibly have a threat object, get displayed to the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) for review. The result is that most checked bags are automatically cleared allowing the TSOs to focus their efforts on a very small percentage of potential threats and those gray-area instances. Although the situation is a little different with accessible property screening (TSA is not only screening carry-on bags for explosives, but also for prohibited items such as knives and guns), the ‘Image on Alarm’ capability, given the improvements in AI, will likely soon be used at the checkpoint, via AI enabled checkpoint CT systems.” Karoly said this capability will dramatically improve checkpoint efficiency given that only a small percentage of carry-on bags would be flagged for TSO intervention.

Additionally, with the newly deployed CPSS technologies, TSA can remotely screen passengers’ assessable property. With remote image analysis, images are delivered to a remote location via a secure network to a TSA operator for analysis. “The TSO is no longer stationed next to the X-ray machine but is now working alongside other TSO’s in a remote image analysis center,” Karoly said. “This approach is already used for checked baggage screening, and it provides several benefits for security and passengers. Operators no longer must wait for images to appear on their screen – they are delivered as soon as the operator is ready, which improves TSO productivity and checkpoint throughput. Remote image analysis also eliminates a touchpoint between the TSOs and the traveling public and is expected to increase operator efficiency due to the removal of operator distractions that occur at a checkpoint.”

Regardless of the technology, Karoly cautioned that insider threats are a constant concern for security professionals across the transportation sector. “Like with most transportation security risks, the mitigation of those risks requires a team effort from stakeholders in both the public and private sectors. They must partner to make detection, deterrence, and mitigation of insider threats a priority. 

Recent CPSS installations include two CT checkpoint scanners at Tweed New Haven Airport, which occurred in a phased approach, with one new lane opening for screening in April with installation of the next lane following in May. Hagerston Regional Airport also installed a new CT checkpoint scanner in April, along with a CAT unit, and on May 25, TSA announced that it has installed four CT checkpoint scanners and new CAT units at the Atlantic City International Airport security checkpoint. 

TSA’s CAT systems authorize a passenger to enter the protected area of an airport by authenticating a passenger’s identity document (ID), confirming a passenger’s flight reservation, and verifying a passenger’s prescreened security status. The program plans to add new capabilities, through upgrade kits to deployed CAT units or new CAT-2 units. These include facial biometric verification to confirm that the presenter of the ID is the person represented by the ID, authentication of digital IDs, and a self-service capability for individuals to present their own IDs. The program is currently focused on Increment 1 of four total increments. 

The CAT program revised its baseline in June 2022, increasing the quantity of deployed systems and adding new capabilities to improve performance. During the course of GAO’s review, CAT program officials told the government watchdog that CAT-2 upgrade kits have been delayed due to kit deficiencies that were revealed in operational testing. Subsequently, acquisition decision for the upgrade kits is anticipated imminently and for the CAT-2s by June 2024.

The CAT program plans to complete follow-on operational test and evaluation for REAL ID capability enhancement in fiscal year 2023. Program officials told GAO that they plan to turn on the REAL ID verification capability when enforcement of the REAL ID Act begins. 

In addition to Hagerston Regional, recent CAT installations include Baltimore-Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport, which now has 36 units in use at the airport.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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