A TSA officer uses a credential authentication technology (CAT) unit at South Bend International Airport. (TSA)

The Three Biggest Challenges for U.S. Transportation Security in 2021

For the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), along with all the other agencies and stakeholders charged with securing America, 2020 was an unprecedented year. Securing the homeland while operating in a global pandemic is the stuff of nightmares, but TSA efforts helped keep people and trade moving without compromising on public health. Many airports also rolled out new technology such as credential authentication and new checkpoint scanners to help with the contactless travel experience, which continues to be just as important in 2021.

Looking ahead, TSA continues to operate in a challenging environment and faces fresh challenges in 2021, not least the delayed implementation of REAL ID in October.

Steve Karoly, former TSA Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, recently spoke to Homeland Security Today to share his biggest security concerns for the transportation sector as part of a look at the threats and challenges facing the United States in 2021:

Implementation of REAL ID

The REAL ID Act established the mandate of minimum security standards for license issuance and prohibits federal agencies from accepting non-REAL ID compliant forms of identification at federal facilities and boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft. This means that every U.S. air traveler will be required to present a REAL ID-compliant license or another acceptable form of identification, such as a U.S. passport, to board a domestic flight. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the implementation of REAL ID by one year, now planned for October 2021, giving states, through their Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices, an additional year to issue these forms of identification. However, in October 2020 it was reported that only 110 million REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards have been issued (approximately 40 percent of all driver’s license holders). This means that an additional 165 million REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards still need to be issued to have 100 percent compliance by October 2021. Given the normal challenges that accompany any new process change along with challenges of issuing IDs during a pandemic, I think it is fair to say that in October 2021 there will be air travelers who are at the airport who do not have the proper documentation to board their plane. That number of travelers could be in the thousands to hundreds of thousands. TSA needs to be prepared to handle this foreseeable situation from both an operational perspective in terms of developing nationwide doctrine and procedures and a personnel perspective in terms of ensuring the thousands of Transportation Security Officers are trained to execute those operational procedures.

Cybersecurity concerns within the contactless experience

Reducing touchpoints within the airport passenger screening process has been a focus area for several years now but the COVID-19 pandemic changed the timeline. The deployment and use of automation and self-service technologies through biometrics, electronic IDs, or mobile applications have accelerated in 2020 with expectations they will continue to accelerate in 2021 (and beyond). Although these new ‘conveniences’ give passengers a more seamless passenger experience, they also provide cyberterrorists additional opportunities to locate and attack system vulnerabilities. Although policies, processes, and technologies are normally put in place by companies to help prevent or limit security incidents and data breaches, we need to be sure their products that are being deployed in airport environments, along with the associated airport’s IT infrastructure, have similar policies, processes, and technologies in place to prevent or limit cyber incidents.

Insider threats

With the growing polarization of political views within the United States, the threat of domestic violent extremists becomes even more real from day-to-day and week-to-week. The aviation sector remains a clear target. With the aviation sector being so integrated across the aviation enterprise, mitigating the insider threat challenge has to be through a coordinated effort between the TSA and other governmental regulators, airport operators, and air carriers — thus the significant challenge facing the aviation sector. 

In May 2020, TSA released its Insider Threat Roadmap 2020 to guide TSA and the transportation community in mitigating the insider threat. The success in executing the details within the Roadmap depends upon the relationships TSA has with the airport operators and air carriers and their willingness to contribute to this effort. The next step is to mutually develop implementation plans that define the who, what, where, when and how for each insider threat focus area. But more importantly, the TSA/airport operator/air carrier team must agree that without each of their assistance, from a planning to execution perspective, the mitigation of the insider threat will not be accomplished nor will there be raising of the bar in terms of the security baseline.

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Steve Karoly is Executive Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group and former Acting Assistant Administrator for the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis. Karoly also served as the TSA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Security Capabilities and CBP’s Chief Engineer and Director of Systems Engineering for the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition (OTIA).

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