TSA stays ahead of the technology curve

Wednesday, January 13, 2021
CIO Russell Roberts photos

TSA’s Information Technology (IT) is a busy shop these days, and Russell Roberts and his team are right in the middle of the action.

New technologies are constantly emerging. Much of it is designed to enhance transportation security screening – protecting travelers and frontline TSA officers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. IT is also focused on improving office technology for the TSA workforce and strengthening cybersecurity efforts to protect TSA systems and its network.

Roberts is TSA’s chief information officer and IT assistant administrator and offered the latest agency IT updates during a podcast interview with Federal News Network Executive Editor Jason Miller.

Prior to fiscal year 2020, TSA developed and released new software every two to four months to meet the changing needs, but since the pandemic hit, Roberts said that timeframe in most cases is down to four or five weeks, in some cases less than that.

Roberts has a small but mighty digital transformation team made up of engineers, development and cyber experts, and people who understand program management. When the pandemic struck, he said it was like flipping a switch.

“We knew folks weren’t going to be coming back into the office,” he said. “Headquarters, which supports our field offices, didn’t believe it was safe to come into the office. Luckily, we were ahead of the game and had invested in agencywide infrastructure, so it was nearly seamless to our customers.”

Roberts said all of a sudden, TSA went from hundreds of employees a day using the agency’s virtual private network (VPN) to connect their computers for daily operations to up to 10,000 employees a day requiring VPN services.

“We transformed into a telework agency, and we did it in an exceptional way,” said Roberts. “I’m really fortunate we had the smart people and infrastructure in place to do that.”

Roberts said his team is always looking at new touchless technologies to protect TSA officers and the traveling public, although this effort began well before the pandemic. For example, credential authentication technology is designed to enhance the way TSA officers confirm a traveler’s identification and flight information without needing to touch an ID. Each proposed new technology is thoroughly tested before TSA rolls it out at the airports, and the agency’s partnerships with industry are crucial.

FNN Executive Editor Jason Miller photo
Federal News Network Executive Editor Jason Miller (Photo courtesy of Don Wagner)

Roberts is the authorizing official. “No system can go live without my approval,” he said. “I’m looking at making sure it’s cyber secure, and we’re not spending money on things we shouldn’t be spending on. We have really good teamwork at TSA to make sure we’re aligned with the Administrator’s priorities and the priorities of the other TSA offices to drive this forward. It’s the teamwork and partnership across the TSA enterprise that makes us successful.”

Protecting the agency’s computer network and data is also top on Roberts’ mind. “I don’t want data leaked,” he said, “whether it’s classified data or personal information. The integrity of the data for the systems that do the screening and terrorism checks and all the things we do – we need to make sure that data is not corrupted in any way.”

Roberts said his top priority is the people who execute TSA’s mission. In the wake of COVID-19, his team developed a system in which TSA officers no longer have to go to the airport to bid on their shifts and leave time. They can now participate in shift and leave bids on their personal laptops and mobile devices, which eliminates everyone coming into the office and possibly being exposed to the virus. Roberts also wants screening officers to be able to trade leave and shifts remotely at the last minute to accommodate family needs while still taking care of the agency’s mission needs. He said that’s the next big project to support officers.

“I want to expand our mobile capabilities, because we have a diverse workforce,” stressed Roberts. “It’s important to support your team and build trust. … We’re working to make it possible to have a better, more effective, happier lifestyle for that incredible screening workforce we have.”

Click here to listen to Roberts’ full interview with Federal News Network.