Friday, October 24, 2008

The Path Forward on Liquids

When it comes to liquids, everybody involved with checkpoint operations -- passengers, airlines, airports, and TSA employees -- agrees that there has to be a better way. Here’s my take on the path forward.

For this discussion, I am using “liquids” as short-hand for liquids, aerosols, and gels and other novel types of explosives.

Intelligence shows that terrorists innovate in explosives formulas as well as the way they would bring them onboard an aircraft. That won’t change any time soon. If liquid restrictions are eased eventually it will be because of improved process and technology, not diminished threat.


TSA uses several technologies that are effective against liquid and other novel explosives.

Standard X-Ray is deployed everywhere and can effectively identify the presence of liquids and their containers. It is not reliable in differentiating all threat liquids from non-threat liquids. It is effective in the 3-1-1 environment by identifying whether there are liquids hidden in a bag – thus it is useful as a compliance tool.

Advanced Technology “AT” X-Ray is the next generation of X-ray equipment that has technology to examine the dimensions and density of objects within a carry-on bag. 500-600 (out of a total of about 2,000 lanes) will be deployed by the end of 2008. TSA will come close to doubling that number in 2009. AT X-Ray has two major advantages over standard X-Ray:

1) Better image resolution from the hardware side – it uses multiple view points; and

2) Smarter software. The image resolution benefit is immediate; the software will be improved over time.

More than 6,500 Trace Detection “ETD” units are deployed at both checkpoints and checked baggage areas to detect minute particles of explosives residue through the collection of trace samples. TSA has several hundred handheld ETD’s that are capable of detecting explosives particles as well as vapor.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scanners are checkpoint-sized versions of the large checked baggage scanners that have MRI-like capability that will detect anything – solids and liquids. They are large and expensive so TSA does not have many of them. We will be deploying them in smaller airports to screen both carry-on and checked baggage.

Several hundred bottle scanners - handheld or bench-top devices –are deployed throughout the country to provide TSA with the capability to differentiate liquid explosives from common, benign liquids. We use them to test exception liquids (medical needs above 3.4 ounces) and for spot checking passengers and bags.

Spectrometers, very advanced handheld units that can resolve any threat regardless of the chemistry involved, have been issued to TSA Bomb Appraisal Officers at major airports.

Hundreds of dropper-based or test strip-based chemical analyzers kits are deployed at smaller airports to resolve any concerns about individual exempt liquids larger than 3-1-1 in carry-ons.

About 40 Whole Body Imagers are deployed to larger airports around the country to date, and about 80 more will be deployed by spring-time. These are the walk-in portals that scan the body and can detect concealed items, including liquids.

And while they’re not actually a technology, it is important to note that about 2,000 TSA officers have been specially trained in Behavior Detection.

In addition, every officer in the country is receiving two days of specialized training – going on right now – to get at evolving threats, including liquids. To keep current, TSA runs IED drills every shift across the country, every day.

K-9 Teams (over 500) are another effective explosives detection capability and we use them in passenger areas, around the airport, and have several hundred additional teams just for air cargo.

Path Forward

We are deploying the best technology and training as fast as we can get it. The goal is to remove all the restrictions on liquids when we have automated systems that can accurately separate threat from non-threat liquids. Here’s the plan:

Now: We are pretty close to having a network of AT-X-Ray deployed so that nearly 70% of daily passengers will be using major airports with AT. TSA is getting the hardware installed so that when the software is ready in the next year or so, all we have to do is a software upgrade. We will be testing software versions in the coming months.

Fall-2009: Size restriction removed, but all liquids will have to be placed in a separate bin. AT X-Ray software will be advanced enough to tell the difference between threat and non-threat but not yet proven to tell the difference when it is hidden in a bag.

End of 2010: No restrictions. AT X-Ray will have upgraded software that is proven to detect threat liquids in any configuration and is deployed in enough places so that TSA can change the rules to meet one uniform standard for the country.

Next Steps

TSA is working with our partners around the world to share technology both ways and this has resulted in a faster development process and will mean that there could be common design standards with major partners like Canada, the EU, and Australia.

It is also likely that when the U.S. takes steps on liquid restrictions, we will do so in harmony with others, as we did with the 3-1-1 (three ounce container/one quart bag/one bag per person) liquids rule. It is fair to say that we and our global partners see the threat in the same way and know that a common, high level of security encompassing a large part of the world is in everybody’s best interests.

Right now at home, we’re looking at some short term options based on passenger feedback and input from airports and airlines. We think there is an opportunity to build on the Diamond Self-Select lanes systems that we have tried in 2008.

The Diamond Self-Select lanes system, where expert travelers and families choose the lane best suited for them, has worked well. The expert lanes are fast and the Family lanes are hassle-free and they are at 45 airports today. TSA, airports, and airlines can further develop that concept, and we’re looking at something along the following lines.

- Limit the Black Diamond (Expert) lanes more formally beyond self-select.
  • By number or size of carry-ons?
  • By 3-1-1 only, no exception liquids?
- Focus liquid detection technology at the Family/Special Needs lanes and ask those with exception liquids to go there – speeding up the other lanes in the process?

Liquids restrictions are with us for the better part of the next year but we all realize that a simple, hassle-free security process is good for passengers and security too. Thank you for coming to and I am looking forward to your feedback.
Kip Hawley

***Update 10/27/08***
3 oz or 3.4 oz? What gives???

OK, here’s the scoop. If the U.S. would have switched to the metrics system in the 70s, this wouldn’t be an issue.

When the TSA lifted the total liquid ban and implemented the 3-1-1 program, the permissible amount of liquids, aerosols and gels was 3oz. Press releases went out, WebPages were updated, and signs were printed and shipped out nationwide to 457 airports. A lot of work went into the 3-1-1 campaign.

When the TSA rolled this out, the European Union was not on board yet. When the EU decided to allow liquids to travel, the amount permitted was 100ml. Well, as we all know, 100ml = 3.4oz. not 3 oz.

In order to align with the EU, we decided to allow liquids in containers up to 3.4oz, but we decided to keep our signage the same. The 3-1-1 program was so successful, that it would have been a shame to change it to 3.4-1-1. J

TSOs nationwide should be allowing liquids up to 3.4oz. If they are not, you can ask for a supervisor or you can use our Got Feedback program.

EoS Blog Team

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

TSA’s Take on the Atlantic Article

Bruce Schneier and others have raised a number of good issues about TSA’s role in aviation security but veer off course when our work is described as ‘security theater.’ Some examples from a recent article in the Atlantic magazine are worth examining and I would put them in three categories as they represent three different layers of security: 1) items carried through checkpoints on the body; 2) watch-lists and boarding passes; and 3) behavior detection. The comments about TSA not hassling the reporter for carrying a Hezbollah flag or AQ T-shirt are more in the entertainment category along with the thought of splashing water on your face to simulate sweating as a demonstration that behavior detection doesn’t work.

Items carried on the person, be they a ‘beer belly’ or concealed objects in very private areas, are why we are buying over 100 whole body imagers in upcoming months and will deploy more over time. In the meantime, we use hand-held devices that detect hydrogen peroxide and other explosives compounds as well as targeted pat-downs that require private screening.

Watch-lists and identity checks are important and effective security measures. We identify dozens of terrorist-related individuals a week and stop No-Flys regularly with our watch-list process. Dozens more people with security concerns are identified through finding altered or forged documents, including boarding passes. Using stolen credit cards and false documents as a way to get around watch-lists makes the point that forcing terrorists to use increasingly risky tactics has its own security value. Boarding pass scanners and encryption are being tested in eight airports now and more will be coming.

Behavior detection works and we have 2,000 trained officers at airports today. They alert us to people who may pose a threat but who may also have items that could elude other layers of physical security.

The bigger point is that there are vulnerabilities everywhere and we use multiple layers of different security measures to protect us all from instances where one vulnerability can be exploited. The standard for TSA is not perfection, but material reduction of risk.

Clever terrorists can use innovative ways to exploit vulnerabilities. But don’t forget that most bombers are not, in fact, clever. Living bomb-makers are usually clever, but the person agreeing to carry it may not be super smart. Even if “all” we do is stop dumb terrorists, we are reducing risk.

Stopping the ‘James Bond’ terrorist is truly a team effort and I whole-heartedly agree that the best way to stop those attacks is with intelligence and law enforcement working together. Anyone who knows would tell you that TSA is, in fact, an intelligence-driven operation, working daily with our colleagues throughout the counter-terrorism community in that common effort.

Kip Hawley

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

From Obscurity to Oprah

A few weeks ago, I started what began as a normal day. I got up and got ready for work just as I would any other day. I'm a Behavior Detection Officer at TSA, working behind the scenes in airport security. Just before leaving my house, I noticed a message on my cell phone and checked it. Shortly thereafter, my day would be anything but normal. It was a call from TSA public affairs saying that they wanted me to fly to Chicago to tape a minute segment for the Oprah Winfrey Show. After a few moments of thinking "this must be some kind of joke," I called the office only to find out that it was very real. Six hours later, I was boarding a plane on my way to Chicago.

There were thunderstorms and traffic was horrible. We almost missed the meeting. Finally, discussions with the producers at Harpo studios made the trip worthwhile. Instead of a pre-recorded segment, they invited me to return to participate in taping the show with Oprah!

The issue of the episode: "Is America changing from the land of the free to the land of the rude?" Now granted, I am certain that we can all share some doozies - TSO's and passengers alike - but I can only speak for myself. Are we moving farther away from civility? Is rudeness the rule versus the exception? I had the opportunity to share my experiences as a uniformed transportation security and behavior detection officer. The episode will air tomorrow, Wednesday, October 15.

It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget. I hope the show sheds some light for people - it has certainly made me more aware of my actions and I hope it will do the same for others. As a result, I will try even harder to be kinder, gentler, and above all else, choose to be civil.

If you have the chance to watch the episode tomorrow - passengers and TSA officers - check back to the blog and share your thoughts. This could be an interesting dialogue to improve how we interact at the checkpoint.


Guest EoS Blogger

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Zero Tolerance

Transportation security officers nationwide are shaking their heads after hearing about a fellow officer’s sticky fingers in Newark. It’s a kick in the gut for each of the 43,000 officers who are honest, hardworking, and take pride in their mission of keeping passengers safe. We are well aware of how folks forget about the important role TSA's officers have in security and remember events such as this one.

As a former officer myself, I just want to be clear that the actions of this individual are absolutely unacceptable and his actions in no way represent the overwhelming majority of hard working officers in airports around the country.

Federal investigators have charged the officer with theft and he is scheduled to appear in federal court today. TSA's Office of Inspection worked closely with DHS investigators to bring charges against the officer and execute a search warrant for the officer’s home. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted. The officer will eventually be terminated. Zero tolerance!

As we have mentioned before, when airports receive claims reports for stolen items, TSA's local management monitors them to look for trends and anomalies. If they see anything repetitive or suspicious, they can call in TSA's Office of Inspection to conduct an investigation. The Office of Inspection then works with federal and local law enforcement to resolve the case.

TSA has zero tolerance for theft and has gone as far as to terminate an officer for stealing pocket change totaling less than a dollar. Since May 1, 2003, less than 500* officers have been terminated for theft, which represents less than 1/2 of one percent of all officers. Unfortunately, this tiny fraction of officers causes damage that is hard to repair.

* Edited to change number from less than 300 to less than 500.


EoS Blog Team

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Message In a Carry-On

As some of you might have seen on other blogs, Evan Roth is an artist who is designing personalized messages you can send to TSA security officers. He laser cuts the letters out of a sheet of stainless steel. The sheet is designed to be placed inside of a passenger’s bag so they can send personal messages to the officer. Have to give the guy credit, he’s creative. Even we got a laugh out of it.
This may seem like a clever gag, but actually the joke is on whoever decides to use one of these plates. Based on the preliminary examples shown on Mr. Roth’s web page, the metal plate will get the passenger’s bag searched every time. And no, it’s not because of what the plate says, it’s because the metal plate acts as a shield and conceals items below it. If an officer can’t get a good look at what’s in the bag, it’s “bag check” time. Fair warning: there are detailed procedures on how to search this type of bag and it’s not one of our quicker searches.

Mr. Roth goes on to explain that you can get your message across with his creation while also obscuring the contents you don’t want the TSA to see. After rubbing my goatee for a second, it was clear to me as to why Evan is an “artist” and not in the security business. Here’s the problem - many folks who might think it’s funny to “talk back” to TSA won’t be too happy when they find themselves spending extra time in the security line. Here’s the reality of what could happen:

1) You could be cited for interfering with the screening process by deliberately causing a distraction.

2) If there is a prohibited item concealed underneath the plate, you will be cited for artful concealment of a prohibited item.

3) If the message on the plate could be interpreted as a threat, you could be responsible for the closing of a checkpoint, not to mention the inconvenience you’ve just caused your fellow travelers.

4) Whoever is in line behind you will now have to wait even longer to get through the screening process.

So before you put your order in, please be aware of what could happen.

By the way, I thought this one was pretty funny.

Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team

Friday, October 3, 2008

Technology Aims to Address Existing Liquid Threat

TSA is aware that the current liquid restrictions are a pain point for the public. That is one reason why the agency is working aggressively to deploy technology that can detect liquid explosives. The primary reason is: better security.

As the Middle Seat blog column stated yesterday, widespread deployment of new multi-view x-ray systems with an enhanced algorithm that detects specific liquids remains about a year away. But the multi-view x-ray itself is a significant improvement over the standard x-ray that’s been at the checkpoint since its inception in the 1970s.

It is worth emphasizing TSA’s checkpoint security operations are based on Intelligence and information sharing with partners here and around the world. Liquids are banned today in the U.S. and in 80 other countries not only because of the foiled August 2006 plot but because of continued interest by terrorists to use liquids and other novel explosives to make bombs.

Even the U.S. papers are picking up on open source information much more readily reported in Europe about active terror suspects with large amounts of explosive chemicals that are still traveling freely in Germany and other countries.

The bottom line is the threat hasn’t diminished on liquid explosives.

Ellen Howe

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pilots for Pilots

One of the requirements of the 9/11 Bill asked TSA to look at ways to enhance security by identifying airline flight deck crew members (pilots) and giving them a faster way to get through security.

TSA is now piloting a couple of ways to meet this requirement, which will get pilots to their planes a little faster without compromising security.

The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) is currently testing a system called CrewPass at Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (BWI), Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) and Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE) in South Carolina. At these three airports, pilots using specified exit lanes approach the Transportation Security Officer at the podium and present their airline badge. The officer enters the pilot’s badge number into a device. The pilot’s face appears on the screen allowing the officer to ensure that both faces match up.

Concurrently, testing of another system is being done at BWI called Secure Screen. Developed with Southwest Airlines, this program is currently in use for participating Southwest Airline pilots only flying out of BWI. Similar to CrewPass, they arrive at a specified exit lane and approach the officer on duty. They present their pilot’s badge and at the same time enter a “clear key” - similar to a USB drive - into a reader. The reader displays the photo of the pilot and waits for the pilot to place their thumb or finger on the clear key. The system verifies that the biometric thumb print matches the fingerprint being placed on it. This system combines identification verification with a biometric component.

Commercial flight deck crew members are responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers at any time and are trusted to operate million dollar aircraft on a daily basis. Allowing them to move more efficiently through the security process, while also being able to verify they are who they say they are, fits into our risk-based security approach.

EoS Blog Team