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Insider Series: Does TSA Security Screening Really Work?

June 03, 2015
7 min read
Insider Series: Does TSA Security Screening Really Work?
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New to our Insider Series is TPG Contributor “Patrick Down,” presently employed as a TSA officer at a US airport. In this installment, he takes a look at the technology used by TSA to screen you and your baggage, and offers his commentary on whether it's effective ... or not.

TSA airport security screening is a huge operation with a ton of high-tech equipment — but is it effective? Photo by Dan Paluska / Flickr.

In the same week that Homeland Security announced that it will be reassigning the head of the TSA and revising airport screening, a report was posted by TSA showing that our that our internal testing department, known as the Red Team, was able to successfully sneak some type of weapon past TSA security screening 67 out of 70 tries — which actually doesn't surprise me.

I've seen the Red Team come through when I was working several times and each time they were successful in sneaking a small, dissembled, derringer type of handgun past the checkpoint. The reason that this was able to happen is two-fold:

1. The Red Team is extremely familiar with TSA Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which is meant to test for vulnerabilities in screening. (It bears mentioning that in each instance of successful gun-sneaking that I witnessed, I also saw that the on-duty officers who were ultimately given corrective action had properly followed our SOPs.)

2. TSA has trained its officers through a process of repetition to look for a broad list of prohibited yet abundant items (e.g., water bottles) that are in reality largely harmless. I personally find that despite my best efforts as an officer, it can be difficult to stay vigilant while doing the extremely repetitive task of screening, especially when most of what I do is ask passengers to throw out their contraband water bottles.

If you've signed up for Global Entry or TSA Precheck, you've already been screened by more government databases than most.

The TSA believes that its screening measures act as deterrents, and I agree. It's important to note, though, that this in part due to the US population's general belief that these screening measures work, rendering them unlikely to attempt anything illegal. Possibly the most effective deterrent shaping public opinion about TSA security is the fact that all passengers are screened through at least one government database — and if you signed up for TSA Precheck or Global Entry, then you've been through significantly more.

This said, I also think that some of our equipment is extremely effective, and even downright amazing. For instance, those hand swipes we do with the little wand allow us to check for explosives, and they really work. (On a side note: Always ask your TSO to change gloves and run a sample swab. There are some common chemicals [like glycerin, a common ingredient in hand soaps and lotions] that can cause false alarms.)

Millimeter wave body scanners work the vast majority of the time. Photo by Michael Sauers / Flickr.

The millimeter wave body scanners, though sometimes unreliable, work the vast majority of the time and can/do detect items as small a Tic-Tac. That’s why, when we ask you to get everything out of your pockets, we mean everything. Metal detectors are old technology, but they still work very well. I run tests on them daily and have never been able to figure out how to get a gun through one. Our X-ray machines are awesome; I can see the individual gears in a watch, and recent updates allow the X-ray itself to scan for prohibited items independent of an officer.

If the TSA tells you your bag has been screened, then rest assured — your bag has been screened. Photo by Clint McMahon / Flickr.

The screening your checked luggage undergoes is even cooler. It's mostly automated, and your property gets sent through SUV-sized machines that can view bags in 360 degree X-ray vision and automatically clear 95 percent of bags. The system then sends images of the remaining bags to a baggage officer who can view the weight/density and sometimes the chemical makeup of individual items. In this way, a baggage officer can clear somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of bags sent their way without even having to open them.

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Many airports will start rolling out Vapor Wake bomb-sniffing dogs for extra security. Photo by San Diego International Airport / Flickr.

In addition to all these precautions, we're currently in the process of rolling out Vapor Wake bomb dogs into all major airports, which are extremely successful at detecting explosives hidden on a human being. Overall, TSA does a pretty good job of doing what they purport to do.

On the other hand, the plain truth is that anyone with enough determination and time could sneak something onto a plane — and I’m not sure what we can do about that. Despite all of our technology, we don't (and shouldn't) perform cavity searches. Millimeter wave body scanners can be unreliable for detecting hidden items under clothes and cause a lot of unnecessary screening of passengers. Behavior Detection Officers (the guys who walk around and watch to see if you look creepy) are useless, and there are widespread rumors within TSA that the BDO program won’t be around for much longer. Walk-through metal detectors only detect metal, and it’s easy to make a bomb entirely out of organic items. Our bomb-sniffing dogs work well, but some types of IEDs can fool even them.

With few exceptions, intelligence gathering efforts by other government agencies — rather than TSA efforts — have caught terrorists. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

With almost no exception, the few times that TSA has caught terrorists, it has been through intelligence-gathering rather than airport security. That said, I do believe that we at least act as a deterrent. It's “Security Theater” in the sense that an extremely diligent and careful person could get something through without us detecting it — but I’m okay with that. The fact that people are forced to research and plan attacks gives the intelligence community more to work with.

Plus, worst case scenario, it's a comfort to know that these days, passengers seem to be getting better at beating in-flight hijackers senseless ... or at least into submission.
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Featured image by Millimeter wave body scans work extremely well. Photo by Michael Sauers / Flickr.

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