Technology is Poised to “Dramatically Increase Security,” Say Heads of TSA and CBP


New facial recognition and CAT scan technologies are key to stopping terrorists, according to two of the nation’s highest security officials who spoke Monday on Center Stage at GBTA Convention 2018.

Transportation Security Administrator (TSA) David Pekoske calls for “better security faster” at Monday’s Q&A session with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, led by GBTA Executive Director and COO Michael W. McCormick. Pekoske said that we must get the technology in place faster than our adversaries, and faster than government has typically acted.

“There’s nothing I’m more excited about in our mission set than the capability of biometrics, and specifically facial recognition or comparison technology, to enhance our facilitation and security efforts,” McAleelan explained. Through pilot programs at multiple airports with a number of domestic and foreign carriers, he reported that the agency has been able to screen 700,000 travelers with biometrics and achieve a 98 percent match rate.

In addition to biometrics, new CAT scan technology will be able to do a much better job detecting threats such as those in luggage. Pekoske shared that his agency plans to replace 2,000 checkpoint x-ray machines with CAT scan technology. In addition to significantly enhanced screening capabilities, he predicted that in three to five years, passengers will not need to remove any items—including food, liquids, or electronics—from their carry-on bags.

In addition to enhanced security, he highlighted traveler benefits such as expedited boarding and arrivals, adding that his agency has been able hold or reduce wait times for five consecutive years using new technologies. Responding to security concerns, he stated the importance of technology remaining cyber secure, not retaining information on U.S. citizens, and maintaining transparency with the public, privacy groups, the media and legislators.

On the horizon, the two agencies will better integrate the PreCheck and Global Entry programs.

Commissioner McAleenan cited tracking ISIS operatives’ widely scattered movements throughout the world, and the 70 percent growth of e-commerce shipments as his top two concerns.

From his agency’s perspective, Administrator Pekoske reiterated the Commissioner’s terrorism concerns, adding that undetected operatives, “lone actors,” pose a real challenge to intelligence operations and those on the front lines. “Security is a shared responsibility,” he added, GBTA members, airlines, airports and passengers included.

Each with over 60,000 employees around the globe, keeping their teams prepared in uncertain times is an ongoing challenge. “I spend the majority of my time on the front line,” said Administrator Pekoske, which he explained includes not only security checkpoints, but also vetting processes, air marshals, and international staff at last-point-of-departure airports around the world to ensure they have the resources, technology and procedures in place to best do their jobs. Commissioner McAleenan underscored the challenge, noting that the travel industry’s ninth straight year of over four-percent growth in international air arrivals. He said he is focused on three imperatives: executing operationally, providing his staff with the tools they need to facilitate travel and improve the customer experience, and building partnerships with the aviation industry, international partners and other federal agencies, like CBP.

Both TSA and CBP garner an unprecedented level of coverage in the news cycle. When asked how his agency responds when, for example, an internal pilot like Quiet Skies program leaks into the public domain, Administrator Pekoske explained that he operates knowing that any new procedure or program can become public at any time. “Our job, both Kevin [McAleenan] and my job, is to manage and mitigate risk,” he continued, emphasizing that Quiet Skies looks at patterns of travel to help identify flights which may require an Air Marshal. “We have a very, very robust process inside TSA—which I think is absolutely necessary and something that I 100 percent endorse—of oversight from the Department of Homeland Security on all of our processes that assess risk by individuals.” Commissioner McAleenan agreed, adding that his agency faces “a tremendous amount of attention on all aspects of our mission, being responsible for anything that comes in or out of the country.”

Colleen Lerro Gallagher is GBTA's Vice President of Communications.

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