Acting deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Patricia Cogswell, said the TSA intends to advance security technologies through a series of innovation efforts.
Speaking at the Government Analytics Breakfast Forum, hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Governmental Studies and REI Systems, Cogswell spoke about the importance of having the right data and analyzing that data to get the right results. She told the forum how the TSA has recently integrated its risk management team with requirements and capabilities personnel to ensure it correctly targets its future technology investments.
In late October, TSA’s Innovation Task Force issued a broad agency announcement for Innovative Demonstrations for Enterprise Advancement (IDEA). The announcement called for concept papers and proposals to improve TSA’s understanding of existing market capabilities and identify vendors capable of enhancing the transportation security system. The objective is to obtain potential solutions to a number of problem areas associated with aviation security: alarm resolution, identity verification, emerging threat detection, automated security design, passenger communications, real-time support tools for Transportation Security Officers (TSO), and passenger load distribution and wait times.
TSA is also seeking information on potential self-service security solutions. A request for information calls for technology solutions that may be rapidly developed to detect weapons and organic threat items hidden on passengers without the same level of TSO engagement normally present in the screening process.
Another area where Cogswell would like to see improvement with the help of technology, potentially artificial intelligence and machine learning, is in x-ray imagery. “We see a lot of x-ray imagery and we would really like to get to the point where the vast majority of prohibited items – or parts of prohibited items – are automatically detected by the machine and not the person.”
Similar technology could be used for other labor-intensive processes such as analyzing CCTV images, Cogswell said. “For example, an unattended bag that has been sitting there for some time, or perhaps a person standing very close to the edge of the platform”.
On behavior detection innovation, Cogswell said the technology is not yet where she would like it to be and that TSA will use its “convening authority” to help advance this and other technologies “because the rest of the world is looking at us to get this right”.
Comparing TSA operations to some other countries, Cogswell highlighted e-gates, such as those used in the U.K., Europe and Australia which read a passenger’s passport and do not open if the technology does not match the passport to the passenger. She said TSA is looking at this slightly differently and offered a possible scenario where a person could check in for their flight on their phone, input their passport number and sign up for the automated process. Then, when they arrive at the airport, they receive a screening appointment time, eliminating the need to wait in line. As the person walks up to the screening checkpoint, a camera takes their picture, and by the time they’re standing in front of a screening officer their photos have been matched against the database.
Cogswell also spoke of TSA’s almost unique position of not owning or operating the infrastructure from where it needs to obtain data. “We are constantly in an environment of getting data and asking operators to share that with us to improve our model,” she said. “We are incredibly reliant on an airport operator or airline telling us if they see something wrong.”
As airports strengthened security in response to initial threats to hijack aircraft or place explosives on board, the TSA has had to adapt to meet the changing threat. As Cogswell said, if getting a bomb through security is too difficult, an attacker will instead turn up at the terminal with some weapons, and if that’s too difficult, they’ll launch their attack in the car park. “Protection is not just about stopping something getting on a plane – although I really don’t want something getting on a plane – we need to think more broadly.”