The TSA is in the development phase of its AI enhanced x-ray screener for monitoring luggage, Administrator David Pekoske said.

The TSA is in the development phase of its AI enhanced x-ray screener for monitoring luggage, Administrator David Pekoske said. Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

TSA looks to AI to enhance x-ray screenings of travelers’ luggage

The Transportation Security Administration is already using facial recognition to verify the identity of travelers but wants to improve its scanners to detect more prohibited items.

The Transportation Security Administration is planning to use artificial intelligence to enhance its x-ray imaging of travelers’ carry-on luggage, even as the agency looks to expand its use of facial recognition technology to bolster the security screening process. 

During a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security budget hearing on Tuesday, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said that — while the technology has not yet been rolled out — the agency is looking to leverage AI to improve officers’ ability to detect prohibited items.

Current scanning technology automatically displays a red box around identified explosives on the x-ray image but doesn’t detect other prohibited items, such as firearms and knives. It is up to the officers to spot these items, which Pekoske said can sometimes be difficult as they process increasing numbers of travelers. On its busiest day this year, TSA anticipates screening over three million passengers, he noted.

Pekoske said that TSA plans to use AI “to train the technology to detect all the prohibited items,” which he added will provide “a machine assist” to officers who have to constantly review images on a screen. 

“Officers won't view quite so many images, but when they do see one [marked by the system], they know, ‘hey, this was alarmed by the technology,’ and they will be more focused on that as a result,” he said. 

TSA is developing the AI system with a vendor and with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate “to make sure that we're doing it in a proper way,” Pekoske told lawmakers.

“We would not deploy it if we didn't fully test it to make sure it worked,” he added, noting that the agency has “been fully compliant” with President Joe Biden's October 2023 executive order on the safe and secure development of AI. 

While TSA is still in the development phase of its AI enhanced x-ray screener, the agency has already been using facial recognition technology to augment its security screening process.

Pekoske noted in his written statement that the agency deployed an additional 313 Credential Authentication Technology — or CAT — units at airports in FY23, including “second generation, or CAT-2, upgrade kits that enable the use of mobile driver’s licenses and utilize optional facial recognition technology to match credentials to the passenger, while protecting their privacy.”

A TSA official previously told Nextgov/FCW that the agency is in the early stages of rolling out the CAT-2 units with facial recognition technology to over 400 airports in the coming years, with more than 80 airports currently using the enhanced systems. The second-generation units employ one-to-one verification, which matches photos of travelers against their government-issued identifications. 

TSA has stressed, however, that facial recognition screenings are optional for travelers — a practice that was enshrined in the Office of Management and Budget’s March guidance on the government’s use of AI. The agency has placed signs around airports using the CAT-2 units to notify travelers that they can still opt-out of the screenings and go through a standard ID verification process without any repercussions.