Fast Facts

The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) research, develop, and test technologies to address threats to mass transit systems.

In particular, TSA tests the effectiveness of commercially available technologies that could help secure mass transit systems, and produces written assessments of these products. However, TSA does not routinely or comprehensively share its assessments with the mass transit operators.

We recommended that it do so to better inform these operators about the capabilities of technology they may buy to secure their systems.

Real-Time Threat Detection Technology that Automatically Detects Abandoned Items

Train station with yellow bullseye over abandoned luggage

Train station with yellow bullseye over abandoned luggage

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has one research and development (R&D) effort focused on surface transportation, the Surface Transportation Explosive Threat Detection (STETD) program, which is developing technologies to secure mass transit systems (see figure). DHS guidance requires S&T to develop results-oriented milestones to track progress. GAO found, however, that S&T has not used milestones that fully adhered to DHS guidance. For example, most STETD program milestones did not clearly link to key activities described in program plans. As a result, DHS may not have the information needed to determine whether the STETD program is meeting its goals.

Examples of Technologies DHS S&T Is Developing to Secure Mass Transit

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S&T, TSA, and stakeholders effectively collaborate, but TSA could better share test results with mass transit stakeholders. For example, S&T, TSA, and mass transit operators regularly collaborate on issues related to identifying mass transit capability gaps and testing security technologies to address those gaps. Nevertheless, GAO found TSA's efforts to share information on existing technologies to secure mass transit could be improved. Specifically, TSA regularly assesses commercially available technologies, but does not routinely or comprehensively share its results with mass transit operators. For example, TSA's reports on its testing of commercially available products would provide mass transit operators with technical assessment information. However, seven of the nine mass transit operators GAO spoke with asked for more technical assessment information on existing commercial technologies, indicating that they may not be receiving the TSA products that would provide this information. Sharing this information more routinely and comprehensively with mass transit operators would allow TSA to better inform them about the capabilities of technologies that could be acquired to secure thteir systems.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 2016, bombings of subways and bus systems in foreign cities and attempted attacks in U.S. cities demonstrate continued security threats to mass transit and other surface transportation systems. S&T and TSA are the primary federal entities responsible for researching, developing, and testing technologies designed to address threats to these systems. GAO has previously identified challenges with S&T's oversight of R&D projects.

GAO was asked to review S&T and TSA's roles in developing and testing surface transportation security technologies. This report, among other objectives, (1) assesses the extent to which S&T is developing technologies to secure surface transportation systems and progress made, and (2) identifies the key mechanisms that S&T, TSA, and stakeholders use to collaborate and share information on identifying capability gaps and security technologies, and analyzes the extent to which they are effective.

GAO assessed S&T's mass transit program because it was the only active R&D effort for surface transportation security. GAO interviewed officials from S&T, TSA, and nine mass transit operators; observed technologies; reviewed documentation; and analyzed budget information from fiscal years 2013 to 2018. GAO also used GAO's leading collaboration practices to assess collaboration on security technologies.

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Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations: that S&T incorporate DHS milestone guidance for its STETD program, and that TSA develop a mechanism to routinely and comprehensively share security technology information with mass transit operators. DHS concurred with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 1. The Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that S&T take steps to more fully incorporate practices for developing milestones within DHS's budget preparation guidance, into the Surface Transportation Explosive Threat Detection program. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In September 2019, GAO reported on a research and development (R&D) program for technologies to secure mass transit systems under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). DHS budget guidance requires S&T to develop results-oriented milestones to track program progress. GAO found that the S&T program's milestones did not clearly link to key activities described in program plans, and thus, were not results oriented. As a result, DHS decision makers were not positioned to identify needed adjustments to facilitate the achievement of program goals, or to ensure that Congress and DHS decision makers had information about whether the program was meeting development goals within identified time frames. We recommended that DHS establish new milestones for the program that fully adhered to guidance. DHS concurred with our recommendation, and in February 2020, reported that S&T's Finance and Budget Division had developed new milestones for the program that aligned with key activities in new program plans. GAO reviewed these new milestones, and found that they linked to key activities in DHS's newly established plans for developing technologies to secure mass transit systems and, thus, were results oriented. By developing results-oriented milestones that link to key events in planning documents, DHS is better positioned to achieve program goals and to provide decision makers information on the status of its R&D efforts for mass transit security technologies. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation to be closed as implemented.
Transportation Security Administration 2. The Administrator of TSA should develop a mechanism to more routinely and comprehensively share appropriate information on the performance of mass transit security technologies (such as the annual sensor catalog and security technology assessments) with mass transit operators and stakeholders until DHS completes work on a more permanent information sharing resource. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In September 2019, GAO reported on key mechanisms that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses to collaborate and share information on identifying capability gaps and security technologies with stakeholders, including mass transit operators. We found that TSA regularly assesses commercially available technologies, but does not routinely or comprehensively share its results with mass transit operators. Therefore, we recommended that TSA develop a mechanism to routinely and comprehensively share security technology information with mass transit operators. TSA concurred with our recommendation and took multiple steps to address it. Specifically, in February 2020 TSA increased the distribution of its annual publication on security technologies. It also began providing regular updates on assessed technologies at routine mass transit stakeholder meetings. Finally, in October 2020, TSA completed work on a database that will allow mass transit stakeholders online access to TSA's repository of sensitive information and reviews of mass transit security products. By routinely sharing security technology information through these newly established methods, TSA can help ensure that mass transit operators make more fully informed decisions about the security technologies they purchase. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation to be closed as implemented.

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