The TSA has sped up technology deployments since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as it moves to reduce literal touch points at airport screening stations.
The effort has been undertaken to benefit the traveling public but also TSA staffers themselves. As of Dec. 15, 11 TSA agents have died of Covid-19.
The technology deployments have centered around 3-D screening systems and automated ID authentication. The former diminishes the likelihood that passenger carry-on bags will have to be manually checked, the agency said, which in turn reduces interactions between agents and flyers. The latter can reduce touch points between flyers and agents at the document check stand.
The 3-D screening systems, known formally as computerized axial tomography (CT) scanners, were first tested by TSA in summer 2017. Between then and the beginning of the pandemic in March, the agency had deployed 98 CT systems at 29 airports, TSA spokesman Carter Langston said. As of Dec. 7, deployments had surged to 267 systems in 130 airports.
The scanners, which rely on the same CT technology that has long been used in the medical arena, provide security screeners with 3-D images that can be rotated for a more thorough analysis than what older-generation TSA scanners can provide. They are also programmed with algorithms to detect explosives, weapons and other items that are not allowed in carry-on bags.
"Not only does this state-of-the art technology represent an improved security threat detection capability at the checkpoint, but it also reduces the need for pulling aside a bag to be opened, thus reducing a touch point during the pandemic," Bart Johnson, the TSA's federal security director for upstate New York, said upon the agency's rollout of CT screening at Rochester Airport last month.
An added bonus for passengers is that they don't have to remove laptops or other electronics from carry-ons when going through checkpoints equipped with CT machines.
The ID authentication systems, known as credential authentication technology (CAT) units, confirm the authenticity of a passenger's driver's license, passport or other ID and also confirm that the person on the ID is slated to fly that day.
The units can be deployed either facing the TSA agent, in which case the passenger hands an ID to an agent who inserts it into the machine, or facing passengers, so that such a hand-off isn't necessary.
The units don't yet verify that the person submitting the ID is its rightful owner, so travelers must still hold up their ID and lower their mask for a face check, but the TSA is trialing such technology at Washington Reagan and Richmond airports in conjunction with the vendor Idemia.
Between the start of the pandemic and Dec. 4, TSA deployment of CAT units increased from 552 systems at 52 location to 834 systems at 115 locations, Langston said. The agency also began installing the units for self-service, so that officers don't have to touch the license or other ID.
"Anything that gets you through the system more quickly but also validates your ID with more accuracy enhances security and will ultimately reduce transmission of the virus," noted University of Illinois computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson, whose research has included the foundational analysis of what became the TSA PreCheck program.
Next-generation CAT units under trial at Washington Reagan and Richmond airports make use of a biometric camera to verify that the passenger is the person pictured in the ID, explained Idemia senior vice president of public security Donnie Scott. Under the system, the TSA does not retain photos for later use.
Jacobson said more use of biometrics by TSA is crucial going forward in order to protect flyers, reduce terminal crowding and reduce touch points.
"If you want to enhance security and efficiency, biometrics is the way to go," he said.