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Sat, Feb 16, 2008

TSA Slow To Implement New Technology For Passenger Screening

Hawley Notes Cautious Approach Must Be Used

Government plans to implement advanced security equipment at airports following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have yet to bear much fruit.

In a recent report, The Washington Post notes screeners still use X-ray machines to scan carry-on luggage, and passengers still pass through the same magnetometers they used to prior to 9/11 -- machines that can't detect plastic or liquid explosives.

In fact, about the only things that have changed at checkpoints, are the number of personnel staffing them... and the types of checks they perform. Opinions of the effectiveness of those measures are mixed, at best, and lawmakers have repeatedly called for new technologies to plug the gaps caused by all-too-human error.

"The snail's pace of deploying new technology is unacceptable," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We remain vulnerable because we have not kept up with technological innovation."

Despite the nature of the 9/11 attacks, most of the $600 million spent on airport security upgrades in the past six years has gone towards upgraded explosives screening equipment for checked baggage, utilizing medical imaging technology. A relative fraction has been spent on detecting dangerous liquids or devices smuggled into the passenger cabin.

A few changes are coming. By midyear, the Transportation Security Administration is expected to deploy upgraded X-ray equipment to some airports, as well as handheld scanners to detect liquid explosives during a secondary check. Both efforts are part of a $250 million upgrade plan, nearly three times the $89 million allocated in the last fiscal year.

While the advancements are welcome, it's unlikely the devices -- some of which aren't so "new," the Post notes -- will result in noticeably quicker, more efficient, or more effective screening.

Some of the devices the TSA has tested, such as the much-touted "puffer" machines, have yielded less-than-stellar results -- proving to be too expensive to maintain, and too complicate to use efficiently. After purchasing 200 of the machines, 109 are now collecting dust in a Texas warehouse.

"Company after company, trying to be helpful and make some money, was pushing their technology. . . . After testing it, we found it didn't do near what they promised," noted John Magaw, the TSA's first administrator. In a report issued last February, the Government Accountability Office "found that limited progress has been made in developing and deploying technologies due to planning and funding challenges."

Current TSA Administrator Kip Hawley counters his agency, and the Department of Homeland Security, have come up with a new plan to work together with companies to develop new systems. He pins the current shortfall on private industries, that don't invest great sums of money in devices with only limited demand.

"The real story here is that the capital markets do not value the security industry as a place to put their capital," Hawley said.

Those companies, in turn, say some of the blame lies with TSA -- specifically, with the fact the agency has had four administrators (Hawley, who came onboard in mid-2005, is by far the longest-serving to date) and three chief technology officers in its relatively short existence. Such high turnover, they argue, makes it hard to agree on a set strategy.

It "can be a bit of a maze to get from concept through development," said Mark Laustra, vice president of homeland security for Smiths Detection, which makes the puffers. "The TSA has to review all potential technologies and test them to see if they are practical for the checkpoint. This process takes time, and then the lab and others like homeland security and TSA have to agree to pilot a program."

Other advancements are in the works, as well. So-called "backscatter" X-ray machines, which give highly detailed images of passengers as they pass through them, are expected to be deployed to major airports in the near future.

Those machines are far from perfect, though. Each scanner costs over $100,000 apiece, plus another $20,000 per location to set up remote viewing stations, due to privacy concerns. The scans take about 45 seconds to complete -- way too long for a long screening line -- and per TSA directive must be digitally "blurred" to obscure certain areas of a person's anatomy. Again, that's out of respect for passenger privacy... but such blurring can also obstruct images of weapons hiding on the person.

Hawley is more optimistic about "millimeter wave" devices, which also see through clothing but work much quicker. One device is now in use in Phoenix, and TSA plans to buy eight more for $1.7 million. In addition to the steep pricetag, millimeter wave images (shown at right) aren't as clear as backscatter.

FMI: www.tsa.gov

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