Hey, neighbor! Can I borrow your Stowaway Detector?

by Philip Weber on August 22, 2012


It’s a fact: guys love gadgets, and TSA Administrator John Pistole is no exception. If it beeps or buzzes, John wants one.

TSA has always lived in something of a technology fantasy world. This is, after all, the agency that stopped a traveler with a cupcake. Presumably the frosting might have been some explosive concoction of plastique and high fructose corn syrup. Or it might have been vanilla. (If only they had had a Digital Baked-Goods Analyzer, Pistole-man!)

Despite the fact that the 9/11 hijackings were carried out with simple box-cutters, and, in the aftermath, the majority of recent American military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq have come from improvised explosive devices, the TSA’s “Inspector Gadget” seems to think that James Bond is about to breach security at any moment, and he wants to be ready.

Here’s a quick retrospective of the TSA’s Science-Fair Follies, plus some of the new gadgets Johnny yearns for:

The Puffer: Officially known as Explosive Trace Portals (ETPs), these machines are supposed to be stationed at the security checkpoint for passengers to enter before proceeding through the metal detector. Several puffs of air are released in an effort to shake loose trace explosive particles on the passenger. Total Cost: $29.6 million for a family pack of 207 machines (about $153,000 each), less than half of which were ever deployed. The rest didn’t work, were pulled from service, and are now sitting in a warehouseCheaper, Low-Tech Alternative: Trained vapor-wake detection dogs, estimated by the military to cost $8,500 each (plus food). As a bonus, dogs do not have to sneeze on you to “shake loose” any particles.

AIT: Advanced Imaging Technology comes in two delicious crime-fightin’ flavors, millimeter wave and backscatter. Also known as nude-o-scopes and by a number of other colorful names, the AIT is the machine that tells Officer Mallcop that you aren’t wearing any knickers. Total Cost: About $250,000 (machine plus installation costs) times 800 machines (with another 1,000 on order) for a total of about $450 million, not including pin striping, floor mats, or undercoating. Fun Fact: The government said this spring that they don’t work.

eFence: (Or is it the iFence? I can never be sure.) I’m speaking, of course, of the high-tech intrusion prevention system at JFK airport. Installed by Raytheon and confounded last week by a drunken jetskier, the fence includes motion detectors and video cameras. Total Cost: Well, here’s a happy surprise! The oft-quoted price of $100 million actually bought FOUR fences, one at each of the Port Authority’s airports. That means that it only cost $25 million to encircle JFK!

Bargain shopper Bonus Question: If JFK covers 4,930 acres, how much does the eFence cost, per foot?

Answer (check me on this, friends): An acre is 43,560 square feet. Assuming the airport is a perfect square, it would take 58,617 feet of fence to enclose it. If the fence was $25 million, that’s $426.50 per foot . . . or about 50 times more expensive (and 0% more effective) than plain old chain-link fencing. Helpful Suggestion: Buy a bunch of those $8,500 bomb-sniffing dogs. By my calculations, for $25 million the Port Authority could station a dog every 20 feet around the entire airport perimeter. Even TSA couldn’t miss a guy in a yellow life-jacket pursued by a pack of 2,941 security hounds.

Automatic ID Checker: Outside every dive bar in America there’s a guy sitting on a stool, checking for fake IDs. TSA’s newest gizmo is a software/hardware solution that would replace him, cuz he probably costs way more than the $115,000 price of each device, and, dude, he’s not digital. Inconvenient Fact: TSA killed off the Puffers because the maintenance costs were around 40% of the purchase price (see above). Unfortunately, Congress noticed that over their lifetime it will cost $150 million to service the $115 million worth of CAT/BPSS machines TSA wants to buy, or 130% of the purchase price. Other Inconvenient Fact: All of the 911 hijackers had current, valid, US-government-issued IDs, making the discovery of fake documents kinda pointless.

TSIF: Every club needs a clubhouse, so why shouldn’t the TSA have a $25.5 million facility with miles of working baggage conveyers where they can test the new technology they’re going to use to harass protect America? Well they do! (Have such a facility, I mean. Not protect America.) Located just steps away from an actual airport terminal, TSA has built a one-of-a-kind pretend wonderland where screeners can practice irradiating one another with AIT technology. At the Transportation Systems Integration Facility, opened in 2009, employees “take turns staffing the checkpoint as mock passengers play out various scenarios.” Wow, cool! “The facility is not, however, intended to become a site to train transportation security officers from the field on equipment operation.” Oh, damn.

Airport Avatars: TSA employees are too stiff and lifeless to give passengers a warm, safe, happy feeling, so the TSA wants to supplement its meager staff of 60,000 with friendly, multilingual, digital agents who will “[inform] passengers of items not allowed on airplanes, such as firearms, sharp objects, and liquid containers of more than a few ounces.” How cool is that? Now the dead-eyed mall cop who barks “laptops out, coats off!” will be replaced with holographic Tupac. No budget has been established yet for this program.

Stowaway Detectors: Is your cargo infested with annoying stowaways? Find out fast with a genuine TSA-brand Stowaway Detector! The TSA’s Science and Technology Directorate (if that name doesn’t send a chill down your spine, nothing will) is asking vendors to propose a system that will find Waldo in a container of electronics, machine parts, fish, or durable goods. Fish? Yes, some of America’s best computer engineers may be working on an innovative new MJDA (Mackerel/Jihadist Differentiation Algorithm) at this very moment. You can’t make this stuff up.

Bottled Liquid Scanner: The TSA is willing to pay up to $44.7 million for technology that will help them determine what’s inside a bottle of liquid. I propose we name this awesome new tool “The Digital Corkscrew.”

Big Brother’s Big Brother: Who’s watching the TSA while the TSA is watching you? The TSA is! The agency is looking for proposals for software to spy on the online activities of its own employees. Importantly, the agency’s spec notes that an employee must not be able to disable the software — such as when, for example, he’s sending a whistleblower memo to the New York Times.

And finally . . . 

Government Security News reported yesterday that Morpho Detection, Inc., and L-3 Communications have each been awarded contracts worth over half a billion dollars “to supply ‘medium speed’ explosive detection systems that can screen checked baggage.” What GSN didn’t mention is that Morpho’s CEO, Brad Buswell, is the former head of TSA’s Science and Technology Directorate.

Naturally.

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