Senate Commerce Committee Holds Hearing on TSA Oversight

September 6, 2018

Yesterday, less than one week before the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to assess challenges and progress in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) aviation security efforts. TSA Administrator David Pekoske testified before the committee.

Administrator Pekoske was pressed on existing programs, most notably the controversial Quiet Skies program, and on emerging security threats like 3D printed guns. The agency’s efforts to expand security programming through updated technology was a common theme throughout.

In opening the hearing, Chairman John Thune (R-SD) pointed to outstanding mandates from Congress, such as updated regulations to employee access controls, that have yet to be addressed since the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act was enacted in 2016. Chairman Thune indicated that he hopes to see the TSA Modernization Act reauthorization included in the pending FAA reauthorization effort.

Administrator Pekoske’s opening statement indicated that TSA has made progress in bringing computed tomography (CT) and credential authentication technology (CAT) to security checkpoints, increasing its canine program, publishing pipeline security guidelines, raising the global baseline for aviation security, and achieving positive results on the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey.

Fairness and efficacy of existing programs

A common refrain throughout the hearing was whether proposed facial recognition technologies will treat all travelers equally. Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Ed Markey (D-MA) pointed to documented inaccuracies with the technology, including higher error rates among dark-skinned women. Administrator Pekoske responded that the proposed biometrics program, for which a roadmap is currently in final draft form and is expected to be released soon, captures both fingerprint technology and facial images. Markey continued to press on the issue, citing a 2017 letter he submitted with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) calling for formal rulemaking to ensure traveler data security, prevent racial bias in biometric technology, and allow Americans to opt out of facial recognition procedures.

The Quiet Skies program, which allows federal air marshals to monitor American travelers, was also in the spotlight. Referring to the program as a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, Markey persistently asked about the program’s monitoring of whether passengers use the restroom, what they eat, and even where they go once they have deplaned and are walking to ground transportation. Pekoske responded that passengers on the list may be monitored in all of these cases.

Among the programs that received more positive attention were PreCheck – which has a current enrollment of seven million and which Administrator Pekoske expects to see continued growth, especially if it merges with the Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program – and the canine security program, which has grown 41 percent within the last year. 

Emerging threats and concerns

New technologies can help mitigate the risk of emerging threats like 3D printed guns, Pekoske said. While security officers can currently see these devices on existing technology, CAT will provide an enhanced and more efficient method of screening. CAT, which performs automatic credential validation of passenger identification by querying a secure flight database, is currently available in 13 airports across the country. The agency has requested funds for 300 additional machines, which are $15,000 a piece.

In response to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)’s remarks on the recent incident at Seattle-Tacoma airport, in which an airline employee stole a plane and died upon crashing the aircraft, Administrator Pekoske pointed to TSA measures to telegraph airport security directors across the country to prevent copycat incidents. Sen. Cantwell suggested that NextGen air traffic control improvements can lead to better situational awareness of ground planes and airport assets to provide a clearer indication of every aircraft’s location.

Non-aviation security measures were also addressed, with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) referring to passenger trains as “pretty soft targets”. Administrator Pekoske indicated that TSA regularly provides intelligence updates to rail partners, and said that Amtrak has a robust police presence.

The full hearing can be watched here.

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