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TSA Just Handed a $15,000 Prize to Mystery Baggage Profilers

A TSA officer checks baggage at Miami International Airport

A TSA officer checks baggage at Miami International Airport // AP File Photo Photo

The Transportation Security Administration announced that two parties have won an agency-sponsored contest to figure out a way to assess the threat-level of an individual passenger’s suitcase. 

But the award notice, published online, does not identify the victors or what they proposed. Or even how much money they won. The maximum payout was listed as $15,000 when the challenge kicked off last summer.

What happened to the new law mandating TSA be more forthcoming about tech spending? The Transportation Security Acquisition Reform Act, which took effect in December of last year, gives the agency until this summer to submit an unclassified five-year technology investment plan. 

The bag tag challenge had asked individuals and organizations to outline a system for placing an electronic marker on a flier's checked luggage that would convey that person's risk profile. Currently, boarding passes are encoded this way -- to help direct passengers to fast or slow screening lanes based on their backgrounds. There is no equivalent ID system for thoroughly or summarily inspecting baggage based on risk level.

The award posting states "Anonymous" and "Anonymous" have been issued an award for solving TSA's so-called "new-bag-tracking-and/or-tagging-concepts challenge."

After Nextgov contacted TSA about the missing details, the agency declined to release information about the chosen threat-assessment systems.

An agency spokesman responded in an email, "There were more than 1,400 submissions using a variety of technologies and processes."

Each of the two champions will receive $7,500, he clarified. 

In a 2014 five-year strategic capability investment plan, TSA labeled suitcase profiling as a "core" investment, along with studying the genetic markers of sensitive sniffing capability to breed “high-performance” explosive-detection canines. Core investments will account for most -- 70 percent -- of the $2.2 billion the agency could spend on technology and infrastructure through 2019. 

It is unclear whether individuals, contractors, academic researchers or a combination of the above took home the cash prize for the baggage profiling challenge. TSA officials said they will not release the names or any background information about the winning parties without their consent.

But the secrecy surrounding the baggage profiling technologies might not even matter. As of now, "there are no plans to implement them,” the agency spokesman said. The concepts are still in their infancy. "Each winning submission is currently being reviewed by TSA’s Office of Security Capabilities for feasibility,” he said.

The competition rules released last year on Innocentive, a site for crowdsourcing solutions to problems, provided some examples of concepts that might work, including RFID-equipped bag tags. These could either be disposable paper labels embedded with computer chips or EZ Pass-like smart-tags that would be reused. Another possible solution might be a highly intelligent QR code. 

"This challenge was a targeted request for inventive ideas that allows the agency to crowd source by engaging diverse and nontraditional groups of thinkers and solvers," TSA officials said in a statement. "This is becoming a widely accepted practice in federal government, as most successfully demonstrated and embraced by NASA, and is in line with the administration’s Strategy for American Innovation.”

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