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The TSA Paid $336,000 for an App That Chooses Between Left and Right

Boycott Of Airport Body Scanners And Holiday Travel Add Up To Long Lines
Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

If you’ve been to the airport recently, you might have experienced the TSA Randomizer, an app that decides into which line passengers get placed for screening: either the standard line or the much quicker PreCheck line. The purpose of this is two-fold. The app “[makes] it harder for potential terrorists to detect any patterns,” reported Bloomberg in 2014, and “[t]he randomization also helps to prevent accusations of racial or other profiling. The program is used at peak travel times when queues increase, such as early morning and evening.”

How much might you expect to pay for the development of an app whose sole function is to choose between two binary options? Would you pay as much as $1.4 million? Because that is apparently how much the federal Department of Homeland Security paid for the Randomizer.

According to a FOIA request from developer Kevin Burke, the $1.4 million was paid to IBM over nine transactions between May 2014 and August 2015. Burke’s FOIA response only contained the contract award’s largest single transaction of $336,414, so whether or not the other eight transactions were for the Randomizer as well, or for other associated work, is unclear. “They might have just gotten the iPad app; they might have gotten iPads, or work on multiple different apps, including the TSA Randomizer,” Burke wrote.

In any case, paying — at minimum — $336,000 for work on the Randomizer seems like a lot. Then again, coding a truly random algorithm is no joke. Computers aren’t designed to act randomly; they’re designed to do the opposite: perform the same task identically every time. So when you combine a seemingly counterintuitive function with the stringent security measures of the DHS, that six-figure bill begins to make a little more sense.

The TSA Paid $336,000 for an App