Members from Amtrak police, Transportation Security Administration and local law enforcement agencies participate in Operation RAILSAFE at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station on Sept. 3, 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

#RealDeal Interview: Keeping TSA a Step Ahead through the New Countermeasures Architecture Branch

Doug MacIvor, Architecture Branch, TSA Office of Requirements & Capabilities Analysis, discusses how intelligence is integrated into the TSA enterprise through the new Countermeasures Architecture branch. MacIvor, tasked with setting up the new branch, spoke with HSToday about the mission of the effort and how it is helping speed the update of technology to thwart the next terrorist attack.

HSToday: Tell us about your role at TSA – what does the Countermeasures Architecture branch do?

MacIvor: Right now, my role is to “stand-up” the new Countermeasures Architecture branch. It only came into existence a few months ago, and there’s a lot of work to do. After an initial post-9/11 surge of security equipment orders, TSA has tended to make occasional, large security-equipment purchases from small numbers of vendors. Many pieces of equipment came without rights to data interfaces, and upgrades have been slow and expensive. As terrorist plots evolve, this slow technology upgrade cycle means TSA’s initial mitigation measures tend to involve procedures or training, like pulling more electronic devices out of carry-on bags. While they’re an important first response, those process changes might not be necessary later if a technology solution were available. In the current global terrorism environment, I frequently see opportunities for a better algorithm or sensor to mitigate a potential threat if they can be implemented quickly enough. Without a modular countermeasures architecture this is very difficult, but with one there could be many more opportunities for businesses with the foresight to work with TSA on common standards and interfaces. So, my branch’s mission is to lay the groundwork for the adoption of modular security equipment that can more quickly adapt to new adversarial tactics, and to enable network-based functions that are not possible with today’s disconnected systems.

HSToday: How has TSA connected intelligence information to TSA acquisition?

MacIvor: Intelligence information is used in a variety of ways. We look at common terrorist tactics and initiate acquisitions in response: the credential authentication machine is one example of that, where we think we can provide a better tool to officers for finding fake IDs. Another way we apply intelligence is by updating the list of things that our equipment must detect. So, new equipment purchases should demonstrate they can detect longer lists of weapons or bomb materials than previously purchased equipment, while efforts are undertaken to upgrade existing equipment. However, this continuous addition to a list of “chemicals to detect” must be balanced with the need to minimize false-alarms. It would help to shift the technical approach from “looking for chemical signatures from a long list” to looking for specific devices based on intelligence. Doing that requires some infrastructure and processes that we don’t yet have for using intelligence while still providing ironclad protection to the sources and methods that were used to gather it. One way to address that problem could be to do weapon mock-ups and scanning on the government side, then downgrading the resulting dataset’s classification level to make it reasonable for algorithm-developers to work with. An intelligence agency’s willingness to downgrade that information would likely be situational, though.

HSToday: You were also one of the first test engineers at the TSA Systems Integration Facility. How did that facility start and what have been some of its impacts?

MacIvor: Creating a systems integration test lab was a great move for TSA, airports, and travelers. The reason for doing it was that pieces of equipment — puffers, for example — made it to airports having been tested only for detection, as isolated units in a clean lab environment. Somewhat predictably, the operating environment is much more chaotic and many integration and maintenance issues arose. The TSIF was created as a last line of defense to make sure equipment is really as ready as everyone thinks, before it gets to an airport. Unfortunately, the lab has sometimes been cast as a “hurdle” to overcome. I’ll never claim that any organization is perfect, and I’ve seen plenty of growing pains at the TSIF, but on the whole it has resulted in much more mature equipment arriving to the field and many more problems being found before they cause problems for airports and travelers.

HSToday: Have you read any good books lately? 

MacIvor: A book I read last month was a biography of the Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I still haven’t gotten past the stage of being enthralled by air and space vehicles, so I found it really interesting, but my emotions were decidedly mixed when I read that many of the acquisition issues they faced in the early 1900s are the same sort of issues that still face businesses today. The Wrights had a horrible time convincing the Dept. of War that the airplane was worth a serious look, and they got multiple form-letter rejections when they tried to be patriotic Americans and offer it first to the U.S. government. Failures of imagination are easy when it comes to new technology, and the natural bureaucratic suspicion of a whole new way of doing business was a major issue for the Wrights. It took other countries, in particular France, to embrace the airplane before the U.S. made any serious investment. It’s also important to note that it was frustrating to the Army officers who did see the airplane’s potential that they had a hard time getting the resources they needed in an environment with lots of established programs, like the cavalry.

HSToday: Tell us if you see any ways industry could be more helpful in your mission. 

MacIvor: Know what you do well, and work with TSA to make that a component of our equipment architecture! That means taking some risk: for example, that opening up an interface to your component might increase competition. However, it also reduces the number of things you must worry about since you do not necessarily have to offer an all-inclusive solution, and no vendor is great at everything. Having modular solutions means upgrading is a smaller purchase for TSA, requiring less testing and potentially below cumbersome acquisition thresholds. Also, I believe in the philosophy that better counterterrorism security everywhere is in our interest. So I want to make the security technologies we create as useful as I can for companies to sell in non-TSA market segments.

Kristina Tanasichuk is CEO of the Government Technology & Services Coalition and Executive Editor of Homeland Security Today. She founded GTSC to advance communication and collaboration between the public and private sector in defense of our homeland.  A leader in homeland security public private partnership, critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, STEM, innovation, commercialization and much more, she brings to HS Today decades of experience and expertise in the intersection of the public and private sectors in support of our homeland's security. Tanasichuk worked for Chairman Tom Bliley on electric utility restructuring for the House Commerce Committee, then for municipal electric utilities sorting out deregulation. She also worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., ran the largest homeland conference and trade show in the country, and represented public works departments In homeland security immediately after 9/11. Tanasichuk brings a new vision and in-depth knowledge of the federal homeland and national security apparatus to the media platform.  She is also the president and founder of Women in Homeland Security and President of InfraGardNCR, a public private partnership between the FBI and private sector to share information to protect the nation's critical infrastructure. She has attended the FBI and DEA Citizens Academies and the Marine Corps Executive Leadership Program and holds her undergraduate degree from St. Olaf College and an MPA from George Mason University.

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