Report: TSA Is Spending $1 Billon On Bag Scanners That 'May Never Meet Operational Needs'

from the good-thing-it's-just-other-people's-money dept

Somehow, "TSA" stands for "The Terrorists Won." In exchange for endless inconveniences, inconsistently deployed security measures, and a steady stream of intrusive searches and rights violations, we've obtained a theatrical form of security that's more performative than useful.

Since screeners continue to miss nearly every piece of contraband traveling through security checkpoints, the TSA has opted to buy even more screening equipment. Apparently, it's hoping no one will say it's not doing anything about these failures. It is throwing money at the problem. That's something. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be solving it.

A new report [PDF] from the DHS Inspector General says the shiny new scanners the agency bought to "address capability gaps in carry-on bag screening" aren't doing that now, and perhaps never will. The TSA obtained 300 computed tomography (CT) scanners, which were supposed to detect a broader range of explosives and make flying slightly less inconvenient by allowing passengers to keep their fluids and their laptops in their respective bags. The ultimate goal is safer flying, less hassle at checkpoints, and faster throughput. It has achieved none of these goals, despite more than $1 billion being obligated towards the rollout of CT scanners nationwide.

Instead of meeting its own four-factor test for essential capabilities, the TSA's new toys fell short of every self-imposed metric.

TSA deployed 300 CT systems to airport passenger screening checkpoints that did not address all needed capabilities. These issues occurred because DHS did not provide adequate oversight of the acquisition. Specifically, DHS allowed TSA to use an acquisition approach not recognized by DHS’ acquisition guidance. In addition, DHS allowed TSA to deploy CT systems even though they did not meet all TSA key performance parameters. DHS also did not assess TSA’s detection upgrade before TSA incorporated it into the CT system. As a result, TSA risks spending over $700 million in future appropriated funding to purchase CT systems that may never fully meet operational mission needs.

The entire rollout is slated to cost around $1.28 over the next ten years. And that's if it stays on track and, unlike nearly every large government program, does not result in cost overruns. In exchange, passengers are theoretically gaining more security, but only if they're willing to wait in longer lines.

TSA’s February 2018 Operational Requirements Document identified the need for a CT system capable of screening, on average, 200 items per hour to successfully perform the mission. However, we determined TSA purchased 300 CT systems capable of screening an average of 170 items per hour — 15 percent less than the minimum requirement, and less than the AT X-ray system capability of approximately 354 items per hour.

And you can kiss the incremental security gains goodbye. If things get busy enough, most bags will still be handled the old fashioned way.

DHS determined TSA would have to either use the CT systems during periods of lower volume passenger traffic or use both the CT systems and AT X-ray systems to balance high demand and reduce the impact to checkpoint operations.

In addition, the CT scanners needed an upgrade less than 8 months after purchase, which would have to be rolled out live during "low volume travel periods." This upgrade was required to bring the machines in line with what the TSA promised they'd be able to do, like detect contraband and reduce the need to open carry-on bags.

The Inspector General says buying scanners that will incrementally improve until they meet the baseline metric used to justify their purchase is a terrible way to spend tax dollars. And it points the finger firmly in the direction of the department that directly oversees the TSA.

DHS does not recognize “incremental delivery” of capabilities as an approved acquisition approach.

And yet, it approved this acquisition anyway, which is slated to run north of a billion dollars within the next ten years. The DHS greased the wheels for yet another TSA failure.

Despite operational test and evaluation requirements, DHS allowed TSA to proceed to full rate production (“Produce” phase) even though the system did not meet its key performance parameter for throughput. DHS did not require TSA to develop a remediation plan or re-evaluate its performance requirement as required by DHS’ acquisition guidance. Instead, DHS approved TSA’s decision to accept the CT system in exchange for attaining the advanced detection capabilities it offered over the AT X-ray.

The IG offers three recommendations. Unfortunately, none of them are "grab your receipts and get your money back" or "dissolve the TSA." It strongly suggests DHS handle acquisitions better by following its own guidelines -- the ones ignored to allow the TSA to acquire scanners that slow down the screening process without offering any measurable gains in travel security.

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Filed Under: scanners, security theater, tsa


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2021 @ 10:13am

    Do-somethingism at its best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 12 Oct 2021 @ 10:22am

    "The entire rollout is slated to cost around $1.28 over the next ten years."

    I think that's the most cost-effective US government program budget I've ever seen.

    Let's see... $1.28 over ten years, assume fixed dollar cost that's... $0.13 (rounding up) per year.

    Wow. That would be the only thing the TSA did right!

    E

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2021 @ 10:29am

    Heckuva bargain if you consider the monumental waste in other government acquisitions, particularly in the defense and intelligence arenas.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jordan, 12 Oct 2021 @ 10:39am

    Plus...

    ...their employees are just the best trained, kindest, least bitter individuals who are not on power trips to make our flights as bad as possible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2021 @ 11:31am

      Re: Plus...

      ... and they are so very well paid, and get to see the public at their very best, doing a job that is appreciated by everyone!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 12 Oct 2021 @ 10:51am

    And

    how much would it cost to add more people to do the job?
    More counters to hold them and process people?
    At $15 per hour and $30k per year?
    34000 workers??
    Over how many locations?
    I think the Employment of more workers would help over the REPAIRS and mis-use of the CT.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2021 @ 2:00pm

      Re: And

      The cost is quoted over 10 years, not annualy, so your worker count is off by a factor of 10. These would need to cover ~500 commercial airports, so you'd probably get an average of about 7 new workers per airport.

      Even at the 170 items per hour that these machines are actually doing, you're looking at workers needing to manually check a bag every 2.5 minutes, which might be just barely doable, if they can get Amazon levels of workplace optimization going. Like anyone believes that'll happen.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 12 Oct 2021 @ 3:34pm

        Re: Re: And

        34000/10 is 3400
        The thing is that Most airports dont have it deep into the states.
        You would need the most at the larger airports, and larger Cities. So you can drop that number in 1/2.
        Well lets look that up.
        Lets go with Medium to Large hubs. 61 looks good.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airports_in_the_United_States

        Lets go with 100, just to make the numbers easy. 34 per location for 10 years, seems about right.
        Want to include maintenance??

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2021 @ 7:13pm

          Re: Re: Re: And

          So we're only upgrading ~100 airports, each airport getting ~34 employees, or ~5 machines.

          The 34 employees need to be scanning 850 items an hour to match the sub-standard machines, which leads to the same ~2.5 minute turnaround.

          Want to include maintenance??
          Want to include healthcare?

          There's really no analysis in which this job favors human workers.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            ECA (profile), 13 Oct 2021 @ 4:08pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: And

            yes there is.
            The Unemployment number goes down.
            They will report a 1% drop.(still not accurate)
            And if you didnt notice, there is a bonus in there.
            As I mentioned 61 locations but Rounded up to 100.
            And its for 10 years of work.
            And if you think 5 machines per location is a good thing, think again. Probably use 1-2 and hold the others for repair/use when those 2 break down.
            And at 1 time per month break down, at $50-200 per hour, Plus travel time and expense. That 1 break down would cover medical VERY easily.

            And 3 employees per Pass-thru, handling 10 Counters(only 30 people) I think they could cover Allot more then 1600-2000 items per hour.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2021 @ 12:04pm

    better to do that than admit the force is a total waste of time!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Oct 2021 @ 2:43pm

    So the question that should be answered is who owns the company creating these things & figure out which members of Congress are in their pocket.

    One would think after the TSA played hide the machines with the last investigation into machines that never did what was promised but we kept buying there would be rules... but then keeping Congress financed matters more... I mean its only our money & we don't dare ask questions or the terrorists will win!!! Meanwhile the scammers & grifters are winning.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 12 Oct 2021 @ 3:01pm

    ...which members of Congress are in their pocket.

    If you just assume "all of the members" you'll be right about 95% of the time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 12 Oct 2021 @ 4:32pm

    Yeah but...

    As long as they go to 11!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2021 @ 5:06am

    The entire rollout is slated to cost around $1.28 over the next ten years.

    Either this is missing a "billion" or CT scanners are much cheaper than I though

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 3:15am

    These new scanners are hilariously awful.

    You can easily "trick" them into thinking you have tons of contraband.

    They stop the line, haul you aside and find its just tightly packed underwear....

    Rinse+repeat and slow every airport in the US to a crawl......

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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