Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring in the New Year, Not the Walk Through Metal Detector

As 2008 closes, so does the first year of the blog. We’ve published 121 posts (not counting this one) and have had over half a million visits to our blog along with over 16,000 comments. (The hits just keep on coming)

It’s been great to read comments from all of our different personalities on the blog over the last year. While some of our readers agree with us and some agree to disagree, it’s these types of personalities all melted and mixed in a fondue pot that help make blogs a little more interesting to dip into. We’ve had the opportunity to open some eyes as to why we do the things we do. We’ve also had our eyes opened a few times.

The TSA EoS Blog Team would like to thank everybody who’s helped out with the blog this year. There are so many folks behind the scenes that you just don’t see. You’ve got the IT folks, legal, our officers and other TSA folks in various positions in the field, several HQ departments that help us with research from time to time, and of course, all of our readers and commenters.

Have fun ringing in the New Year, but if you’re traveling through an airport, please remember to divest all metal objects, or you’ll be ringing in the walkthrough metal detector. Oh, and yes… champagne is a liquid.

The Blog Team would like to wish everyone a safe and happy New Year and we’ll see you in 2009!



EoS Blog Team

Monday, December 22, 2008

TSA on 60 Minutes

TSA and aviation security was featured in a 60 Minutes segment with Lesley Stahl last night. Transportation Security Officers LaDonta Edwards (BWI airport) and Gary Wilkes (DCA airport) were interviewed along with TSA Administrator Kip Hawley.

We gave CBS an inside look at TSA’s new training for all officers designed to calm the checkpoint, better identify threats and improve security by changes in how officers engage passengers. Our officers appreciated the time spent talking with Ms. Stahl, and she was certainly surprised to learn that one of the strangest things officers had seen come through the X-ray machine was a baby in an infant carrier. (Seems some people take the “Never wake a sleeping baby” mantra a little too seriously.)

Ms. Stahl had access to the TSA Operations Center, also known as the Freedom Center. This is our main information center, where analysts monitor the entire transportation network and connect TSA with the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration, FBI, and other law enforcement and security agencies. It is the kind of place you would hope exists in the post 9/11 world.

During an airport visit, Ms. Stahl and Kip Hawley operated the multi-view X-ray machines at BWI and saw how the improved technology helps officers find suspect items by highlighting areas of concern on the screen. While in the remote viewing location for the whole body imager, Ms. Stahl was surprised to see that it was not the “pornographic” image she thought it would be.

The piece also includes Bruce Schneier, security expert (and blogger) who calls some of TSA’s measures “security theater.” We agree with Bruce’s comments in the piece about terrorists being able to change their tactics every time something is banned or receives added scrutiny (guns, box cutters, liquids, shoes, etc.). That’s why we’re using new officer training and technology to be more proactive and going after hostile intent through the use of Behavior Detection Officers. These officers are trained to look for involuntary behaviors people trying to evade security display and can distinguish them from the behaviors of the average frazzled passenger late for a flight.

We understand that some checkpoint security measures annoy many Americans, but because of the intelligence information gathered from around the world, TSA deems these measures are necessary. We appreciate any opportunity to highlight our officers, enhance public understanding about why we do what we do, and show what motivates us every day in order to keep air travel safe.

To see the 60 Minutes segment, click here.

Ellen Howe
Guest EoS Blogger

Friday, December 19, 2008

TSA Outside of the Airport

Next month I will celebrate my 7th anniversary with TSA and the one constant over these past years has been the added elements of responsibility. What started as concentration on aviation security after the attacks of 9/11 has evolved into a web of security tools and partnerships that span all modes of transportation, local and state governments and stakeholders near and far.

While this may be seen as a “puppy post” by some, I thought it would be helpful and informative to let you all know that we are about more than just the TSOs and the FAMS you always hear about.

For instance, we get lots of questions about why this or why that in a foreign country. The fact is, TSA is responsible for implementing and enforcing security standards in domestic airports, that’s about 450 airports in our country. We work with our foreign partners to harmonize measures. For instance, approximately 80 countries are on the same regime for liquids. Flights from foreign countries to the United States must adhere to our security standards. TSA has security representatives in 19 countries around the globe. These individuals are responsible for working with local governments and carriers, US and foreign, that fly to, from or over the US to ensure they're complying with regulations.

The agency is working aggressively with our U.S. Coast Guard colleagues to complete the enrollment of all USCG-credentialed mariners and all personnel requiring unescorted access to secure areas of Maritime Transportation Security Act regulated vessels and facilities into the Transportation Worker Identification Card program. With an estimated 1.2 million people to enroll, TSA has already signed up more than 700,000 mariners and is well on the well to meet the nationwide compliance date of April 15.

The original compliance date of September 15 was extended to April 15 as a direct result of collaboration with port officials and industry, and realigns the enrollment period with the original intent of the TWIC final rule. The original compliance date was based on an 18 month enrollment period scheduled to begin March of 2007. The beginning of enrollment was suspended and the first port (Wilmington, DE) began enrolling workers in October 2007. This allowed for less than one year to enroll more than 1.2 million workers.

While nationwide enforcement is being realigned to April 2009, several ports have already complied and several more will become compliant in the coming months.

In Transportation Sector Network Management or TSNM, we lead the unified national effort to protect and secure a wide range of our nation’s transportation systems. TSNM covers highway and motor carriers, maritime, mass transit, pipelines, freight rail and general aviation.

As our Web site states, “every day, the transportation network connects cities, manufacturers, and retailers, moving large volumes of goods and individuals through a complex network of approximately 4 million miles of roads and highways, more than 100,000 miles of rail, 600,000 bridges, more than 300 tunnels and numerous sea ports, 2 million miles of pipeline, 500,000 train stations, and 500 public-use airports.”

How do we help? Well, essentially through grants and other supporting programs. Unlike aviation security, TSA is not charged with providing the physical security itself but with coordinating and regulating it. So we work with our industry partners and develop tools and exercises that help each “Sector” become more secure and therefore more safe.

For instance, recently TSA worked with local authorities by funding an exercise with a goal of being able to safely and predictably stop a transit bus remotely. Why would we want to stop a bus? Transit buses could be appealing to terrorists because of their unprecedented access to large population centers, critical infrastructures, etc., so stopping a bus might occur if the bus was hijacked by terrorists or was stolen for use as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED).

The system, developed in coordination with TSA and industry, uses cellular communications and patches into the existing safety controls on the bus to restrict speed and activate the brake system on the bus to bring it to a safe stop and opens the doors for unobstructed access by law enforcement. The commands are received at the speed of texting, giving law enforcement a way to predict, and therefore choose, a location to stop the bus. This is just one example of things TSNM is doing to make all modes of transportation more safe.

Of course one blog post is not enough space to write about the dozens of proprietary K9 teams now charged with screening cargo, the hundreds of rail inspectors working with industry to enhance the secure infrastructure of that system, the men and women of TSA working to shore up general aviation or pipelines or subways or on and on.

I just thought that while so many bicker and argue about shoes or coats or laptops, thousands of folks at TSA are doing good work that keeps Americans safe each and every day.
So I hope you are as intrigued as I am about the work this agency does, because I would almost bet, you never even knew we did some of the things we do. I know I didn’t.


EoS Blog Team

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Artful Concealment?

So, what exactly is artful concealment? Prior to working for TSA, I had never heard the term before. I used the term in a blog post a couple of months ago and based on the responses I got, many of our readers didn't seem to be too familiar with the term either.

So what does it mean? Does it mean to artfully conceal something you need to have Bob Ross paint a happy little tree on it so we won’t see it? Nope…

Let me give you a few examples, and then I’ll give you a definition.

A sword in a cane. A gun umbrella. A derringer belt buckle. A cell phone stun gun. A crucifix knife. A hollowed out bible with a gun inside. A gun taped to the bottom of a steel plate. I could give many more examples, but I don’t really want to give folks any ideas.

So basically, artful concealment is when you disguise an object by modifying its natural form to the form of something that will conceal it. This can be done by modifying the object to look like a permissible object, or it can be done by hiding the object in a belt, or shoe, bag lining etc. An artfully concealed item can also be an item that has been intentionally shielded by another object to hide its view from the x-ray.

In many cases, folks go through a lot of trouble concealing something with an item our x-rays can see right through. It’s sometimes comical to see the things that people think will fool an x-ray.

Here are some of the artfully concealed items that came through various checkpoints around the country just yesterday.

• A passenger was arrested after an officer found 19 rounds of .38 caliber ammunition hidden in their carry-on bag. The ammunition was taped together, wrapped in aluminum foil, and placed inside the handle of his carry-on bag.

• An artfully concealed 3-inch bladed belt buckle knife was detected in the carry-on bag of a passenger. The passenger surrendered the knife and was allowed to continue on their flight.

• A 2-inch pocketknife was hidden inside a laptop. The knife was located between the keyboard and the laptop screen. The passenger stated he knew the knife was in the laptop and that it was a prohibited item. Law enforcement officers issued a summons to appear in court and allowed the passenger to continue on the flight.

• A cane with an 18-inch sword blade was found during checkpoint screening. The police responded, confiscated the cane and interviewed the passenger who stated she did not know the cane (which was given to her by her husband) contained a sword. Law enforcement officers allowed the passenger to continue on the flight.

• A passenger was arrested after an artfully concealed 4½-inch knife was found inside a Santa Claus ornament. Police responded, confiscated the knife, and interviewed the passenger who stated she received the item as a gift and did not know there was a knife inside.

• A concealed pocketknife was detected during checkpoint screening. The passenger alarmed the metal detector and said that he had metal implants in his left hip. The passenger again alarmed the metal detectors and was referred to secondary screening. During hand wanding procedures, the passenger alarmed on his right side. The passenger produced a utility knife with a 2½-inch blade and wooden handle from his right pocket. State Police responded, confiscated the knife and arrested the passenger on the state charge of attempting to circumvent security screening.

• A 2½-inch knife was found inside a passenger’s belt buckle. The County Sheriff’s Department responded, took possession of the knife, and interviewed the passenger. Law enforcement officers allowed the passenger to surrender the prohibited item to a non-traveling family member and continue on the flight.

There are also a few blasts from the past I’d like to mention. We’ve had a gun in a teddy bear and a diaper bag, a knife in a baby carrier, and too many cane-swords to mention. Many of these canes are hand-me-downs or were purchased at an antique store or yard sale and the passenger had no idea whatsoever that there was a sword inside.

So what’s the moral of this story? It’s not worth getting arrested or delayed in your travels to sneak a small knife on a plane. And before you leave for the airport, double check your bags, belt and pocket for items that could cause you trouble at a checkpoint.


EoS Blog Team

Update 12/17/08 1846: This happened after our blog post went live, but we wanted to share it with you anyway. After noticing a piece of metal in a shoe on the x-ray monitor, a passenger was caught artfully concealing a crack pipe under their shoe insert.


EoS Blog Team

Update 12/26/08 1500: Five rounds of .38 caliber ammunition were detected artfully concealed in a deck of cards in the carry-on bag of a passenger. The deck of cards were glued together and had five individual bore holes drilled out in order to hold the five rounds. Police responded and interviewed the passenger, who stated he “wanted to keep the bullets out of the reach of his kids.” Police arrested the passenger on the State Charge of Unlawful Possession of Ammunition.


EoS Blog Team

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In-Line Baggage Screening: Increased Security and Convenience

Most Americans know that all checked luggage is required to go through screening before it goes onto the plane, but what happens behind the scenes? One of two types of screening systems are being used at airports across the country. “Stand-alone” inspection systems can often be found in the public lobby of an airport terminal near the airline check-in counters—although they are sometimes installed in locations outside of public view. These labor-intensive systems are typically used in small airports or in specific zones with low baggage volumes.

“Stand-Alone” Baggage Screening System Schematic

“In-Line” inspection systems, unlike their stand-alone counterparts, use heavily automated networks of Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) able to handle thousands of bags each hour at busy airports. More than half of the 2 million people that fly each day go through airports with in-line baggage screening systems.

These systems use conveyor belts to automatically screen, sort, and track baggage. Multiple EDS machines are linked to a centralized control room and several “resolution rooms.” When a bag triggers an alarm, the bag’s image is transmitted to the resolution room where trained officers determine whether a physical inspection is warranted.

If a physical inspection is required, the bag is routed via conveyor belt to an inspection area where TSA officers screen the contents of the bag while under constant supervision by closed circuit TV. A notice is placed inside each bag that is physically examined indicating an inspection took place. If there’s a problem afterward, the CCTV footage can be used to determine if a particular bag was indeed hand-searched and by whom. Once an alarm is resolved, the bag is placed back on the conveyor belt and sent on its way to the plane.

Other benefits of this technology: since the in-line system is heavily automated, the number of physical injuries sustained by officers due to lifting baggage is reduced, TSA can track each and every bag throughout the process.

“In-Line” Baggage Screening System Schematic
To learn more about how in-line baggage systems work, check out this link.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Frequent Traveler's Experience on the Other Side of the Line

My name is Christine, and I've worked for TSA for about 3 years now working on the Web team at Headquarters. I spend most of my time doing technical stuff, but I also dabble in some writing. I'm an avid traveler (it's a passion of mine) and I've had the pleasure of going through airport security in 22 countries across 6 continents. More on those experiences in later blog posts 'cause today's is about being on the other side of the security line....

I spent 4 hours volunteering at DCA's Terminal 'A' checkpoint on Monday. It was pretty busy and after a quick briefing with the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer, I was given the title of "bag loader"and jumped right in there to assist passengers with placing their carry-ons through the X-ray, and answer questions like, "Can I bring this through?" or "Do I have to take this off?"

I encountered many friendly passengers during the first half of my shift, and I have to hand it to the elderly, they were just so laid back and had a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing. One elderly gentleman, sitting in a wheelchair no less, joked to his wife about having to get down to his "skivvies." After that, came the extra friendly passenger who winked at me...twice. Okay, maybe that will work in the grocery store checkout line but it's not going to get you too far in this scenario, buddy. Another female passenger asked whether or not she had to remove her "bling." I told her it would probably be a good idea.

Speaking of the metal detector - it's called that for a reason. Much to my surprise, many of the passengers did not check their pockets before going through it and guess what? They beeped. Repeatedly, I watched passengers get back in line for another bin and go through the metal detector again. In my opinion, this is the easiest part of security (metal=beep) yet it continued to be a sticky point for passengers throughout the day and probably cost them the most time.

Now for the second part of my shift. First up was a passenger who presented an expired airport ID to the travel document checker. A few minutes were added to his security experience to verify his identity and then he was cleared to go. Next up I encountered the stereotypical late, rushed passenger stressed out about having to make his flight (he was sweating and saying things under his breath). He got to the metal detector and X-ray with his with jacket, shoes, and tons of stuff in his pockets. I watched as he made not one, not two, but three trips to the metal detector to get it right. His last trip through was the kicker, though: he took his belt off it and swung it down on the conveyer belt so hard that it bounced up and almost hit me in the face.

By the end of the day I needed a break (I'm used to sitting at a desk all day, after all) so I took 15 minutes. On my way back to my post, I got in line to go through the metal detector in front of a woman holding her dog. I stepped through and the metal detector alarmed. Not sure why, but I might have brushed the side of the detector by accident. The woman with the dog rolled her eyes and sarcastically asked me if I spoke English. Clearly she wasn't in the holiday spirit with fellow passengers (she thought I was one). I wanted to say that I spoke English and Spanish but I smiled politely instead and went back to my post.

My experience on Monday made me acutely aware of just how fast everything happens at the checkpoint, even though, as a passenger, I feel that I go through at a normal pace. It was difficult for me to focus sometimes because of the chaos in the background. The most challenging part was placing the seemingly never-ending load of bags through the X-ray and watching passengers walk through the metal detector and back, over and over again. It's monotonous but also must be mentally challenging to officers who have to do their jobs while also looking for threats. Kudos to all the TSOs out there who do this every day.

EoS Guest Blogger