TSA airport security improvements are still lacking


security theaterOnce again, TSA airport security theater was exposed by testing.

In a Congressional hearing last Wednesday, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) administrator David Pekoske was grilled about TSA’s latest failure during recent security tests at a number of airport security checkpoints across the U.S. In the tests, undercover agents successfully smuggled fake knives, guns, and explosives past TSA airport security more than 70 percent of the time.

In 2015, TSA flunked its internal security tests badly. That year it failed to detect smuggled weapons and explosives at airport security checkpoints 96 percent of the time.

Earlier this year, TSA tested security at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Undercover agents successfully sneaked in 17 of 18 weapons and explosives through security checkpoints, a 95 percent success rate for the undercover agents.

While the latest test was an improvement, TSA still failed to detect weapons and explosives 70 percent of the time. Let’s put that security theater improvement into perspective.

Had the undercover agents been actual terrorists, they would have been able to bring enough weapons and explosives on board one or more commercial flights to bring the airplanes down and kill hundreds of people, at the very least.

Addressing the 2015 failures, in testimony before Congress, then TSA Administrator, Peter Neffenger stated that TSA would improve Transportation Security Officer (TSO) training.

Two years later, it’s clear the training didn’t take, or was insufficient to solve TSA’s problems. In my opinion, training alone can’t solve TSA’s serious airport security theater checkpoint problems.

TSA is planning procedural and equipment improvements, but the list of improvements is far from comprehensive enough. It doesn’t address some major problems.

Let’s take a look at what TSA is proposing.

TSA is planning to use biometric fingerprint scanners for TSA PreCheck and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Global Entry members to speed them to luggage screening. At Global Entry kiosks, this technology is already in use to speed travelers quickly past passport control when reentering the nation. It’s highly effective.

TSA is planning to replace current carry-on luggage x-ray scanners with computed tomography (CT) scanners. The scanners use x-rays to create a 3D picture of carry-on luggage contents, then apply computerized analysis to detect explosives and other banned items in luggage. CT scanner systems can help combat the human problems of pattern matching and speed up luggage examination.

Human beings aren’t well equipped to screen passengers’ luggage using scanner monitors. We’re very good at picking out patterns from random data, but not at detecting exceptions in uniform data. That’s what TSOs looking for weapons and explosives on scanner monitor screens are asked to do. The computerized analysis of CT scans is designed to overcome that shortcoming.

CT scanners should be able to speed up the process of examining passengers’ carry-on bags by reducing the number of bags needing secondary screening because of improved contents recognition.

Singapore’s Changi Airport is already successfully using a similar CT scanner system to the one TSA has been testing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International and Boston Logan International airports.

Unfortunately, at the hearing last week, TSA Administrator Pekoske testified that TSA doesn’t have the funds to fully invest in CT scanners across the country.

Considering the failures of TSA airport security checkpoints across the nation in test after test, it would seem to be inexcusable for Congress and the Trump Administration to not provide the funds necessary to replace all current carry-on scanners with CT scanners within twenty-four months after testing is complete.

Many if not most air travelers at U.S. airports are being screened by MMW wave based full-body scanners. They scan for weapons, explosives and other banned items on travelers’ bodies and in their clothing. Unfortunately, the scanners have serious shortcomings which any dedicated terrorist can easily exploit.

The MMW scanners will readily catch travelers secreting metal guns, knives and other highly dense objects on their bodies or in their clothing. They will likely detect plastic or ceramic-based weapons there, too.

As has been shown in tests, MMW scanners likely won’t detect low density explosives taped to a traveler’s body. MMW scanners are unable to detect weapons or explosives secreted in body cavities because their waves don’t penetrate human skin.

As a result, TSA’s extensive use of MMW scanners leaves air travelers highly vulnerable to attacks by intelligent terrorists who understand the scanner’s flaws. TSA needs to reevaluate its dependence on MMW scanners. TSA should consider a return to magnetometers, plus highly effective explosives-sniffing dogs.

TSA continues to use seriously flawed ETD (Explosive Trace Detection) sniffer machines to check air travelers and their belongings for explosives. ETD machines are notorious for producing false positives and are highly vulnerable to improperly followed procedure by TSA personnel. ETD units should be replaced by explosives- sniffing dogs.

To get out of the security theater box, TSA needs to screen air travelers and their belongings at airports with equipment that can actually do the job, using sensible, cost effective procedures.

TSA spends too much of their budget on finding pocket knives, large shampoo bottles, and toothpaste tubes carried by ordinary passengers, while failing to find weapons and explosives, according to their own airport checkpoint tests. TSA needs better checkpoint equipment and procedures. Most important, they need to focus on prevention through intelligence.