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Viterbi School Security System to Call TSA "Plays" in Pittsburgh Airport Security

Computer programs that randomize scheduling of security activity, proven at LAX, will expand role

September 02, 2009 —

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the latest government protective agency to investigate for operational use a sophisticated system that makes security operations impossible for terrorists or criminals to predict.

A research group led by Milind Tambe of the USC Viterbi School Department of Computer Science developed the system, known as "ARMOR" in the version now in use at Los Angeles International Airport.  The USC-based National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) funded the work.

The new system, known as GUARDS (Game-theoretic Unpredictable and Randomly Deployed Security), will help produce schedules that are unpredictable, but that still maintain uniform and high levels of coverage.

GUARDS will receive its first tests at Pittsburgh International Airport and at LAX.

Tambe notes that daily operations include a large number of separate security activities, known as 'plays,' designed to look for activity or problems.

The issue, Tambe continues, is to provide coverage weighted by importance of potential targets — that is, to weight the random selection of 'plays' for each time period — and to do so without making it possible for potential criminals or terrorists to discover patterns.

Joe Terrell, the TSA Federal Security Director for Pittsburgh International Airport, states “Transportation systems are dynamic and fluid as are the threats to these key elements of our nation’s infrastructure.. Consequently, as a part of our security strategy we too implement dynamic and unpredictable security measures. Continuing to introduce random and unpredictable layers of security is a valuable tool to enhance our ability to protect the travelling public.”

The GUARDS system, developed by a team including Tambe and computer science post-doc Chris Kiekentvld, PhD student Manish Jain, MS students Harish Kumar and Bharatkumar Patel and undergraduates Michael Scott and Craig Western, uses intelligent randomization principles driven by game theory and other mathematical algorithms.

Tambe and associates first developed such techniques for the ARMOR system, which was operationally tested in 2007 went into operational use in 2008. The ARMOR team received special commendations from the city of Los Angeles in February of this year for their contributions to LAX airport security.

The Federal Air Marshals are also working with the USC CREATE/Tambe team.

"We are glad to be contributing to public safety," said Tambe.

A delegation (below) from TSA recently visited Los Angeles.

[FRONT LEFT to RIGHT[: Craig Western, Manish Jain, Erin Steigerwald (TSA) Milind Tambe, Jason Pantages (TSA), Chris Kiekintveld [Back LEFT to RIGHT]: Bharatkumar Patel, Harishkumar Bellamane, Michael Scott, Steve Hora (CREATE), Brian Bondoc (TSA), Eric Heinz (TSA)