Correction: TSA says the "total development costs" of the app were $47,400, not $336,413.59. They also confirmed that the app was part of a larger contract with IBM. See more below.
If you've flown recently, you may have seen a TSA agent holding a tablet that pops up an arrow that tells you which line you should stand in. That little app is called a "Randomizer" and TSA agents use it to determine who is subject to the random searches that are a part of the TSA Pre-check program. Here's a video of it in action:
You wouldn't know it, because it looks incredibly simple, but it appears that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) paid IBM $47,400 for the app, part of a larger $336,000 payout. IBM has not yet responded to a request for more information.
That 336k number was obtained by developer Kevin Burke, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the contract behind the app because he was curious. TSA confirmed that the app is part of a larger $1.4 million contract between the TSA and IBM, which may include the building of other mobile apps and a computer program for an "enhanced staffing model," described here in a 2011 Powerpoint.
But when Burke asked specifically how much the Randomizer costs, the TSA sent him a slightly redacted September 30, 2013 contract for $336,413.59. According to TSA, though, the "development costs for the TSA Randomizer Application were $47,400 in total," and the initial $336,413.59 was not allocated for one app or project. It's also worth noting that random number generators, which is essentially what the "left or right arrow" app is, are one of the easiest things to code.
To prove it, my colleague Patrick Hogan whipped up this program in a few minutes. It effectively does the same job:
Admittedly, Hogan's program doesn't produce a large arrow, but it's hard to imagine that'd cost too much. At this point, there's still some ambiguity about what exactly the TSA received in exchange for its payment.
The arrow app is part of TSA PreCheck, a program in approximately 150 airports that lets pre-approved travelers get through security faster. They don't have to take off their belts or shoes, and so the lines move more quickly—but some travelers are subject to random searches. The app is there to make sure that whomever is being subjected to those searches is truly selected randomly.
Ironically, TSA debuted the app in early 2014 while it was in the midst of touting a cost-cutting spree. As Bloomberg reported at the time:
The TSA, which asked Congress for a $100 million cut in its 2015 budget, promotes its risk-based security techniques as one way to save taxpayers money. The agency plans to eliminate more than 1,400 employees and close six of its 26 federal air marshal field offices. Bring on the apps.
That $100 million was cut from a budget of more than $7 billion. Nonetheless, we're talking about an agency with a bad history when it comes to misspending, which took over a year to process this FOIA request (though they're by no means alone in bad behavior on that front).
So, PreCheck passengers, next time you see those flashing arrows, think about what a deal you're getting on the smartphone apps you have to pay for.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org