The TSA Randomizer iPad App Cost $1.4 Million

You may have seen the TSA Randomizer on your last flight. A TSA agent holds an iPad. The agent taps the iPad, a large arrow points right or left, and you follow it into a given lane.

How much does the TSA pay for an app that a beginner could build in a day? It turns out the TSA paid IBM $1.4 million dollars for it.

It's not hard! I searched on Google for "TSA FOIA" and found this page, which describes exactly how to reach the FOIA team at the TSA. Ignore the part about how they will get back to you in 20 days. I sent them this email:

I request that a copy of documents concerning the following subject matter be provided to me:

The RFP (Request for Proposal) issued by the TSA for designing and implementing the "TSA Randomizer" iPad application, described here and currently in use by TSA agents at security checkpoints at many airports, including Terminal 2 at Oakland International Airport.

Details of any submitted bids from contractors or internal government agencies to design and construct the "TSA Randomizer" iPad app.

The final signed contract between the TSA and a contractor to implement the "TSA Randomizer" iPad app.

I also included a little bit about how I thought this request should be eligible for a fee waiver, and how I wasn't going to profit from knowing this information, but it didn't seem particularly difficult to get the data, so I'm not sure it mattered.

They just got back to me! They sent me two documents. The first is a disclaimer about how they had to black out some of the information. The second is the contract between the TSA and IBM. And there's the payment:

Later today Pratheek Rebala reached out to mention that this data is available publicly, and there were 8 other payments as part of the same award, totaling $1.4 million; the document I have is one part, totaling $336,000. Furthermore, there were 4 bids for the contract and IBM won the bidding.

Unfortunately we don't know everything the TSA got for that $1.4 million. They might have just gotten the iPad app; they might have gotten iPads, or work on multiple different apps, including the TSA Randomizer. We only know it's associated with the TSA Randomizer based on the FOIA request that returned this document.

TSA randomizer payment

I should mention that the Obama Administration, the "most transparent", has set numerous records for delays in turning over files and refusing to fulfill requests for access, and none of the candidates seem likely to reverse that trend. If you think this is important, consider writing your elected officials and asking them to prioritize this, or making decisions in November based on this.

Liked what you read? I am available for hire.

6 thoughts on “The TSA Randomizer iPad App Cost $1.4 Million

  1. Phil Goetz

    In government contracting, the company that wins the contract takes at least half of the money off the top for “overhead”, even in cases such as app development where that figure is much larger than is needed to pay for health insurance, mailing checks, renting an office and buying a computer that the app developer doesn’t need, and various other administrative tasks.

    What the “overhead” really represents is the cut that the company gets in exchange for putting its name on the line. This is an insurance that the project will get completed. The bigger the contract is, the bigger the company must be who “signs for” the project.

    If the project is too large for the reputation of the company that wants to do it, the small company has to ask a larger company to submit the contract, and subcontract it to them. The larger company takes their cut for using their name, the small company takes their cut, and the people who do the work end up with a fraction of the money.

    This seems wasteful, but it’s less wasteful than having 3 out of 4 projects tank because they were awarded to people who didn’t know how to run a project.

  2. Pingback: TSA Paid a Hefty Fee for an iPad App to Get You Through Security - Fortune

  3. Pingback: TSA seems to have paid $300,000 million for ‘Randomizer’ app | Fusion

  4. Perry

    Seems to me you should ask for a copy of the Performance Work Order. This should give you more information, on everything that was requested by the TSA

    1. kevin Post author

      Thanks! I don’t really want to wait another 14 months but the info on how to submit should be pretty easy to find! It didn’t cost me anything.

  5. Arturo Araya

    So as ridiculous as this all sounds, and it does, having worked on a multi-million dollar corporate project I can say that whenever you hire a 3rd party to work on any kind of project there is overhead; a LOT of overhead, especially if you’re running Waterfall instead of Agile (or SAFe).

    First, all consultants and consulting firms bill by the hour, and it’s usually at least a couple hundred per consultant. Even a small project would require some kind of design phase, then a development phase, then a testing and remediation phase, then a customer acceptance phase, and then finally rollout. Since this is the TSA we’re talking about I am certain there would be a security penetration testing phase somewhere, even for a small iPad app (I work with security people; they are some of the most paranoid on Earth and with good reason).

    Assuming even a relatively small development and design team of 5 people (2 designers, 2 developers, 1 tester), that’s about $1000 per team hour. Design and development usually take about 60% of any project, with testing and rollout the remaining 40%. Projects of any size usually have an additional 10-20% time allocated to the “sh*t happens” bucket; flights are missed, unexpected roadblocks are found, people get sick and go on vacation, usually at the worst possible time (usually a couple days before a big deadline). Frankly even something this small I could see taking over a month, simply because are so many people involved. (There is probably a rule somewhere that says the inefficiencies in a project are directly proportional to size of the team.)

    I won’t do the math here, but this list so far accounts only for direct project costs. Outside of that you have the incidental costs: travel and lodging (some consulting firms build this into the RFP as part of the hourly rate), time inefficiencies due to equipment and infrastructure delays, resource (i.e. workforce) constraints, also purchasing equipment, in this case the iPads (last I checked, Apple was not giving away any iPads), etc.

    Given all this it is not surprising to me anyway that this project would have come in at over a million, even for something so small and seemingly trivial as building a randomizer app. Yes, a single developer could absolutely have built this for a fraction of the cost, but the thing of it is, a project this size insulates any one person from having to bear the brunt of failures in the project. Do you really want to be the guy that gets hauled in front of Congress because your app caused some major issue in Chicago O’Hare on Thanksgiving, or you missed a deadline because your family got mono, or you broke your arm? Frankly I wouldn’t want to be that guy, even for half a million dollars. Better for IBM to do that than me. :)


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