Wednesday, March 5, 2008

TSA – Security Is An Illusion But The Costs Are Real

Since Mr. Bush federalized the airport security guards and made it a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the airport security system has evolved into a large governmental organization consisting of 43,000 employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)[i].

According to the TSA, they are to “…protect the nation's transportation systems so you and your family can travel safely. We look for bombs at checkpoints in airports, we inspect rail cars, we patrol subways with our law enforcement partners, and we work to make all modes of transportation safe.”

Unfortunately, TSA has not been living up to their ‘mission’ of protecting the nation’s transportation systems. The latest study released by GAO titled AVIATION SECURITY, Vulnerabilities Exposed Through Covert Testing of TSA’s Passenger Screening Process in November 2007 (hat tip to Bruce Schneier of Schneier on Security), revealed that TSS had failed to detect bomb components in series of tests conducted at 19 airports in March, May, and June 2007 (page 8). Or as LA Times reported in its report, Airport screening tests reveal major security flaws,[ii] that there were allegation of cheating on the test where TSA agents in some airports were tipped off to the test. Even then, they failed.

This series of tests only confirms what the general public had known for a while that the TSA is totally INEFFECTIVE at identifying potential threats. In fact, TSA has been failing the security tests since 2002. USA Today reported back in September 2002 of TSA failing to detect threats at 32 airports[iii].

So How Much Are We, the taxpayers, paying for this “Security?”
According to the OMB FY2008 budget[iv], the budget for TSA is $6.4 billion for FY2008, a 6.5% increase from FY2007 of $6 billion. So, we are spending $6.4 billion for a security system that has continually failed inspections. WHY?

What Are Our Alternatives?
The risk of future terrorist attack on the transportation system is very high and quite real. I do not discount the need to provide the highest level of security possible. However, there are smarter and better ways of securing our transportation systems. Without belaboring the point, Airport Council International (ACI), an association of airport operators worldwide, has published a very good overview of the current security shortfalls and their recommendation for improving airport security in their Three-Part Improvement Strategy[v]:

1. Introducing an element of uncertainty or surprise to the pre-boarding screening process

2. Use profiling techniques to focus the screening efforts on the passengers that may present the higher risk

3. Increasing the use of explosive detection equipment (some of these explosive detection equipments are already in place in select airports around the world.)

Risk Analysis of Our Airport Security Features
We know from the ACI paper that the current airport screening system has not changed much since 1970’s and there are a lot of great technology out there that can be implemented right away at all major U.S. airports. So what are the risk and rewards of status quo versus quickly adapting new and better technologies?

Risks of current system: Continued failure to detect and prevent introduction of improved explosive devices and their components on to airplanes.

High Cost of a Single Risk Event:
1. Current TSA infrastructure cost of $6.4 billion per year

2. $2.7 billion in compensation (based on Pan Am Flight 103 compensation from Libya[vi])

3. $141 million for a Boeing 767-300ER[vii]

For a total risk event cost of approximately $9.2 billion, based on a single airplane incident.

Relatively Low Cost of Implementing New and Better Screening Technologies:
A. $180,000[viii]: Smith IONSCAN SENTINEL II, a non-contact, walk-through screening device for explosives or narcotics[ix]

B. $60,000 "millimeter wave" device[x] from Brijot Imaging Systems, which can senses and analyzes the density of energy radiated by humans and concealed weapons. The device can capture images from as far away as 45 ft, with maximum detection time of 0.3 sec

C. $300,000 COBRA system[xi] from Analogic, which can check carry-on bags for explosive and weapons, using CT scanning technology

While there are a total of 19,960 airports in the U.S.[xii] – 5,233 public and 14,757 private – only 567 are qualified under Part 139 Certification as of January 2008. This means only 567 airports serve typical commercial flights[xiii].

I. Upgraded screening package consisting of a Smith IONSCAN SENTINEL II, "millimeter wave" device, COBRA system, a single entry screening package is $540,000.

II. 2,000 packages for each of the 47 largest U.S. airports[xiv], 200 packages to the remaining 325 Class I airports[xv], and 20 packages for the remaining 195 Class II-IV airports.

Based on the assumptions and the data, the total estimated cost of upgrading all 567 commercial airports to the latest passenger and carry-on screening is approximately $1.2 billion. Double this amount to account for installation and integration into the existing x-ray machine and metal detectors, and we get a grand total of $2.4 billion.

Risk Recommendation
Based on this analysis, we could install the newest passenger and carry-on screening system in all 567 commercial airports and revert majority of the TSA security functions back to the airport operators and airlines. This will result in continued annual cost savings of the $4 billion (TSA budget of $6.4 billion less the upgrade estimate of $2.4 billion)

1. All airports will have the latest screening systems

2. For added protection, the DHS can work with the airport authorities and local police to monitor the airports

3. The latest screening systems will reduce the long wait time at pre-boarding check-in

4. The latest screening systems will also allow DHS to focus on other surveillance functions, including enhancing their Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program

Will The Government Make any substantive changes?
Don’t hold your breath. It has been more than six years since the 9/11 incident and only a handful of airports have some form of the latest screening systems[xvi]. So in the meanwhile, if you need a job, stop complaining and find out if you are qualified to be a TSA security officer.

Hey Who Wants To Be A TSA security Officer?
You can get started with this NBC interactive test: MSNBC Airport Security Screener. And if you like to join the force, you can look for jobs on the government job site[xvii]. The salary of a TSA security officer is ranges from $24,400 to $36,600[xviii] and supervisor’s pay ranges from $68,300 and goes to $105,900. So for a government job, this is pretty good.

Ed Kim

DISCLOSURE: The author is Long on “Common Sense” and heavily Short on Collective Idiocy.
[viii], page 6
[xvi] and

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