TSA innovation officer envisions big future for AI and biometrics

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T1011CTMarchine_c_HR [Credit: Courtesy of TSA]
The TSA has sped up CT screening scanner deployments during the pandemic. The systems offer an enhanced 3-D imaging platform compared to deployed legacy AT X-ray systems and can be upgraded to automatically detect a broader range of threats. Photo Credit: Courtesy of TSA

As the TSA's chief innovation officer, Dan McCoy holds a position few people even know exists.

After all, it's not everyone who associates the Transportation Security Administration with innovation, or for that matter with much beyond airport checkpoints.

But McCoy, who has held the post for the past 16 months, has already been onboard during a period of quick, Covid-19-prompted technological adjustments at the federal agency. And looking ahead, he envisions a future for airport screening that to some ears will surely sound downright radical.

Artificial intelligence (AI), coupled with multinational information sharing, he says, will bring a day relatively soon when transportation security officers won't have to view the contents of most carry-ons brought through screening stations.

Biometrics, enhanced by a proliferation of mobile IDs, will make carrying traditional IDs optional for passengers.

The profusion of sensors that are now being built into all sorts of smart devices will open new ways to identify individuals who present a threat before they reach the checkpoint. 

And one day, all of those technologies, along with others, will open the potential for what airport security professionals refer to as "screening at speed," meaning the screening of passengers as they move normally through the airport en route to their gates.

"It's that long pull of the future that we're trying to develop toward," McCoy said.

Compared with a vision like that, the steps the TSA has taken to mitigate the pandemic, and to protect both the agency's own agents and the public against the spread of Covid-19, have been decidedly less glamorous.

Technology already in use

Still, the drop-off in checkpoint traffic, coupled with the urgency caused by the virus, resulted in the agency moving much more quickly than it previously had on deployments of 3D CT scanners.

The scanners, which rely on the same CT technology that has long been used in the medical arena, provide security screeners with 3D 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.

The use of CT scanners, compared with older screening technology, diminishes the likelihood that carry-on bags will have to be manually checked, thereby reducing interactions between agents and flyers.

The agency also sped up deployment of credential authentication technology (CAT) units, which confirm the authenticity of a passenger's driver's license, after the pandemic began.

T1004DanMcCoy_c [Credit: Courtesy of TSA]
Dan McCoy

McCoy, though, is proud of an especially low-tech move the TSA made: authorizing checkpoint agents to turn those machines toward passengers so flyers can insert their own IDs, rather than requiring agents to handle them. That procedural change, McCoy said, came after checkpoint agents raised the issue early in the pandemic. He views that step as a sign the agency is building a stronger culture of trust between management and frontline agents. 

"It's really a good human-centered design story," McCoy said. 

What's still to come?

More futuristic changes, though, are in the offing. First up, McCoy said, will be widespread deployment of biometric technologies at checkpoints.

"Biometrics proliferation is definitely around the corner," he said.

In particular, flyers can expect to be able to present mobile IDs at checkpoints in the not-too-distant future, with TSA piggybacking off growing usage of mobile driver's licenses and other IDs in the commercial market, including at stadiums, theme parks and in hospitals.

With mobile IDs, flyers wouldn't have to present a physical ID at all at checkpoints. The very fact that the TSA is interested, McCoy said, could drive innovation by private mobile ID developers.

"What we're hoping is that more and more markets start developing faster, knowing that we are already here and we are a massive reason that anybody takes their ID out of their wallet," he explained.

McCoy also envisions a big future for AI.

"Artificial machine learning I think is going the change almost everything we do in TSA," he said.

One example: Last year the agency joined forces with airport security entities around the world to promote open architecture in airport security systems. 

McCoy said that working together, the global airport security industry can use AI and image sharing to achieve an algorithm that will safely identify only those bags that present measurable risks. With such technology, TSA officers could be alerted to those risky bags, which they would personally check, but they wouldn't have to spend all day looking at thousands of safe bags, a change that would help prevent burnout. Agents would also record results from all the bags that the algorithm flags, providing a continuous data stream that the AI system would use to constantly improve itself.

"I think within the next few years, a minimally viable solution will start getting piloted," McCoy said.

Internet-connected sensors also present opportunities for the TSA and could potentially augment work currently done by K-9s.

One example: McCoy foresees the agency relying on smart devices to detect threats, such as explosives or drugs, ahead of a checkpoint. The agency could then zero in on potential suspects as they reach screening.

"Now, instead of having a cumbersome process where we pull people aside, you can more easily identify who you think it is," he said. 

As for screening at speed, it's not coming soon, McCoy said, but it's likely in the offing one day. Sensor-based tracking of IP addresses as well as biometrics and even old-school data collection through Trusted Traveler programs like TSA PreCheck would play a part in such a future. 

As an example, McCoy said that when customers walk into a Target store and search for apps on their phone, the Target app will come up as a suggested app. 

"We already have a lot of those capabilities technologically that we can start iterating on," he said. 

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