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Advanced Imaging Technology - Yes, It's Worth It

Cross-posted from the TSA Blog

There's been a lot of public discussion about TSA's deployment of new screening technology known as AIT. Public discussion and debate is good, and we at TSA have worked hard to inform, educate and adjust our screening protocols in the interests of security, efficiency, safety and privacy. Our FY 2011 budget request includes $573 million to purchase 500 Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units and to operationally staff, operate and maintain 1,000 units, which includes the 500 units we are deploying now. This is indeed an important investment decision and not something we take lightly. We don't take the threats we're facing lightly either.

We've greatly improved TSA's IED detection capabilities in bags through better technology and more rigorous training and testing of our officers. Getting to threats hidden on a body is more difficult, because of the limitations of metal detectors, and patting down everybody that comes through a checkpoint isn't an option anyone likes.

So starting in 2007, we began testing AIT at the Transportation Security Lab and TSA's own operational testing facility to study its capability to detect non-metallic items as well as metallic ones. Based on the success in the labs, we tested the units in the airport environment, where they proved effective in threat detection and they were accepted by passengers as a screening option. The airport testing also looked at throughput, staffing needs, real estate requirements, privacy protections, and reaffirmed all safety requirements were met for the public and our officers. We left no stone unturned.

All the work we have done in the past two years gives me confidence that this technology will significantly increase TSA's detection capability at the checkpoint. Using AIT, our officers are finding things like small packages of powder-based drugs hidden on the body. When I say small, I mean that one packet was smaller than a thumb print. We have also found small weapons made of composite, non-metallic materials.

Based on the intelligence reporting we see every day, this technology is absolutely essential to address the threat we see today. It can also be upgraded over time, either as the threats change or as the industry improves the threat detection software.

With our first 1,000 units we will be able to use AIT to screen over 60% of all air passengers each day. We take our responsibility to protect each and every traveler very seriously. We have used lessons learned from the past, and we deployed this technology only after we were fully confident it would work in an operational environment and after our acquisition process had undergone extensive reviews and approvals by DHS' Acquisition Review Board.

Which brings me back to the cost. At about 1.8 million passengers going through checkpoint screening a day - 650 million passengers a year - the annualized, full cost of purchasing, installing, staffing, operating, supporting, upgrading, and maintaining the first 1,000 units of this technology is about $1 per trip through the checkpoint.

Is it worth a dollar per passenger in the short term for increased long term security? You bet it is.

Gale Rossides is the Acting Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration

Published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.
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