TSA moving towards a risk-based approach to security

The Transportation Security Administration is moving more towards a risk-based approach to security at airports, according to agency officials who took part in a panel discussion at the American Association of Airport Executives conference on Tuesday in Atlanta.

Among the TSA officials that took part in the roundtable discussion on the current state and future of airport security included; Douglas Hofsass, deputy assistant administrator, transportation sector network management; Lee Kair, assistant administrator, security operations; Francine Kerner, chief council; John Sammon, assistant administrator, transportation sector network management; and John Sanders, deputy assistant administrator, security technology.

According to Kair, TSA Administrator John Pistole has expressed interest in having passengers voluntarily provide the agency with biographic information so that transportation security officers can focus more on travelers that they don't know that much about or have a concern with.

Also, rather than focusing purely on detection solutions at airport security checkpoints, Sanders said that in the future there will be a greater focus on the "fusion" of technology with providing real-time intelligence information for officers in the field.

TSA is also continuing to move forward with the deployment of advanced imaging technology (AIT) machines and Sanders said he expects to procure another 500 units by the end of the year. Sanders added that tests of Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software, which turn AIT body images into a generic stick figure, conducted earlier this year at three airports have yielded positive results and could be deployed later this year.

According to Sammon, the agency is also looking into how it can utilize specially trained dogs on a more widespread basis. Despite the numerous security measures that are in place at checkpoints, Sammon said that dogs could help in boosting security in the "sterile" areas of airports.

"Canines are used in the transit environment in many ways and we think they could be used more in aviation," he said.

The use of improvised explosive devices also remains a huge threat to aviation and according to Kair; TSA is working to develop new technologies and processes to deal with this threat both on the cargo and passenger side.

"I think we all need to recognize the biggest threat to aviation is the IED," Kair said.

Despite the media attention placed on pat-down searches, Kair said that only about three percent of travelers actually receive them and that they are an effective way to resolve alarms that occur during the screening process.

The backlash against pat-downs has been so intense that some states have recently passed legislation that would make them a crime. Last week, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill that would prohibit TSA screeners from searching certain parts of a person's body without probable cause.

"I think (these legislative efforts) will undermine security in a big way at the airports," Kerner said.

According to Kerner, all of the TSA's searchers are conducted under the public safety exception of the Fourth Amendment.

She also said that the law is clear that when passengers begin the screening process that they must complete it.

"We will not allow a terrorist to walk away on the cusp of discovery," she said.