GAO: TSA not making most of imaging tech

TSA's scanners have been equipped with Automated Target Recognition to avoid revealing passenger images.

TSA's scanners have been equipped with Automated Target Recognition to avoid revealing passenger images, but a GAO report finds the agency is not effectively monitoring data or conducting appropriate tests of machines at U.S. airports. (Illustration from

Even though the Transportation Security Administration has pushed hard to get less-intrusive security screening technology in place at the nation's airports, the agency is not fully testing it or compiling data that might help in future procurements, according to a government watchdog report.

In a report released April 30, the Government Accountability Office said TSA was not effectively monitoring data or conducting appropriate tests of its large cadre of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) security scanning machines, equipped with Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software at airports around the U.S.

ATR is software added to the AIT scanners a few years ago after a public outcry over previous scanner technology that produced revealing images of passengers. The ATR software helped replace those graphic images with a non-specific generic human outline, adding pointers to suspicious anomalies.

As of March 2014, according to the report, TSA has deployed about 740 machines at 160 airports. It estimated the agency will spend more than $3.5 billion over the life of the units already deployed and those it intends to buy in the future.

Despite the spending, TSA is not effectively using operational data from the systems to plan for future acquisitions, nor is it testing them effectively – largely, GAO said, because of uncertainty over what office is responsible for enforcing the machines' operation directives.

According to the report, at about half of the airports that use AIT technology, the agency does not conduct weekly checkpoint explosives detection drills with the equipment. The lack of testing and analysis, GAO said, blunts security officers' abilities to effectively and efficiently deal with the real thing.

The agency also does not track AIT false alarm rates, which could lead to further inefficiencies.

Lawmakers charged with transportation security oversight were not pleased with the findings.

"This report from GAO represents another in a long list of audits critical of TSA's acquisition and oversight of costly security-related technologies," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, in an April 30 statement. "After failing to adequately consider the privacy implications of Advanced Imaging Technology systems before spending hundreds of millions of dollars on deploying almost 1,000 machines, we must ensure that billion dollar projects take into account proper privacy safeguards and are implemented methodically, with all available information.

"TSA should not spend a single dollar on additional AIT machines until all of the deficiencies identified in this report are resolved," he added.

A TSA spokesman declined immediate comment on the report, but pointed to the agency's official responses to GAO's recommendations for improvement.

In a lengthy response letter to GAO, DHS's GAO-Office of Inspector General Liaison Office Director Jim Crumpacker said the department was aware of the importance of the AIT systems and is working to improve testing and evaluation processes.

Crumpacker said DHS also is working in third-party collaborations with the security screening industry on developing and enhancing screening technology, and has agreed that it should revisit how checkpoint explosives drills are managed and promised to initiate a review. He also said the department has implemented security capability analysis programs to better understand the overarching security systems architecture to gain insight into its needs.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.