Journalism in the Public Interest


Speeding Up Security: The TSA Wants to Screen Before They Scan

PreCheck, a TSA initiative, offers travelers expedited security screening if they allow the agency to track their flying habits and to collect other personal information.

A TSA agent waits for passengers to use the TSA PreCheck lane being implemented at Miami International Airport (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

TSA body scanners continue their steady advance into our nation’s airports, but another agency security initiative begins well before travelers ever reach a checkpoint. PreCheck, the TSA’s nascent pre-screening program, allows some pre-approved frequent travelers to make it from check in to take off in record time –if they give the government access to lots of information in return.

The TSA began rolling out the program in October, working with Delta and American Airlines to invite certain flyers to apply. After gathering information about their flying habits, payment types and other personal information (TSA won’t provide all the specifics), some of those flyers became eligible for the expedited screening.

This specially selected bunch will experience all sorts of perks at the airport: they get to keep their belts and shoes on, leave their laptops and zip-locked liquids in their carry-on bag, and even walk through their own dedicated security lane (red carpet not included). Think airport E-ZPass, only with a background check.

According to the head of the TSA, the initiative gets travelers “we know and trust the most” through security faster, freeing up time to monitor unknown or riskier travelers (including, of course, people on terrorist watch lists).

Right now PreCheck has about 85,000 members and is only used at a few airports: Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Miami and recently Las Vegas. The TSA plans to expand the program to Los Angeles and Minneapolis St-Paul in the next few months. Agency officials also hope to extend the expedited screening to some airline crew members and members of the military.

If some of this sounds familiar, it might be because the TSA has a history of failed attempts at creating a trusted traveler program. Back in 2005, they started a pilot program called Registered Traveler (RT), which had many of the same goals as PreCheck: biographical details and a fee in exchange for a shorter wait and less hassle at security. After starting and stopping in various iterations, the TSA shut down the program. Clear, one of the largest of the several vendors who participated in the national pilot, collapsed in 2009 (but may be making a comeback).

Several countries have similar sorts of programs for border security in place now. Privium, a program at Schipol airport in Amsterdam, gives frequent flyers deemed to be low risk “hold-up free travel” complete with a club card, private lounge and valet parking. It costs up to 189 euros a year. Nexus is a Canadian program that aims to make crossing our northern border a little easier for pre-approved travelers. GlobalEntry is designed to speed up the customs process for background-checked international travelers returning to the United States.

So while TSA has removed some information from its scanned images, it seems to be submitting travelers to other, perhaps equally intrusive, forms of personal scrutiny. We’ll see which proves to be less controversial.

This is great news, particularly for frequent business travelers.

I’ve used the GlobalEntry program for awhile—it sounds like the screening process is similar—and it has saved me many hours inbound customs. Just bypass the lines, answer a few questions at a kiosk and scan your fingerprints, and you’re on your way. To me, a fair trade for a background check and an interview—no more information than I would submit for a job application anyhow. Remains to be seen whether TSA can emulate CBP’s success here.

And so it begins…

The government now gets to decide which of its citizens are just “good old boys” and which we need to look out for. What basis does the TSA use to decide which of us are okay and which aren’t? What about if you’re a Muslim? What about if you’re a Muslim who travels to Muslim countries? What if you’re a Muslim who is critical of the US government? What if you’re just critical of the government in general or the TSA more specifically? What if you have a criminal background like a DUI conviction, drug conviction or you didn’t pay your taxes?

The TSA won’t say what they are using.

I’m sure this will make life easier for those of us who play by the rules, who don’t do anything they’re not supposed to do, who stay away from any kind of controversy and who never make a serious mistake in their lives. Hooray!

I’m telling you right now, this is just the beginning. We already know that we have no private information anymore, that corporations already know everything that could be known about us because it is all online, where you spend money, where you travel, where you stay, what you like, etc. They are already using this personal information to “provide better customer experiences”. Why shouldn’t the government do the same thing? The information is easy to get. Combine what is publicly available with what can easily be purchased from private businesses with what the NSA is gathering with Echelon (don’t know about it? Learn… and you can get a pretty good idea about a person. Why shouldn’t the government use that information to determine who to investigate so they can keep all the good guys safe from the bad guys?

Far fetched? All the pieces necessary to create an extremely powerful police state are already in place. The technology is there. The people are kept sufficiently scared to allow it by constant news stories of terrorists and cyber criminals and people lurking in the shadows ready to do harm to their children. We have generations of citizens that don’t know enough about history to recognize these patterns as being dangerous. And we have enough sensory distractions to keep us entertained and disinterested in all that “depressing stuff” (think bread and circuses).

Think its not coming?

David E. Shellenberger

Jan. 4, 2012, 3:41 p.m.

TSA offers to mistreat you less badly at the airport if you let it invade your privacy in advance. What a deal!

John, it’s not even “play by the rules,” of course.  My criminal record is, I believe, stunningly boring.  However, I still wouldn’t want some anonymous security guard getting access to my work history, my bank accounts, my family, and whatever else they want.  Imagine a woman applying, whose bitter ex-boyfriend or violent ex-husband gets the file.  “Nothing to hide” depends on from whom.

If that’s not bad enough, keep in mind that this is the same organization that puts toddlers and soldiers on no-fly lists because their names are vaguely similar to Arab people who might allegedly have ties to terrorists.  Does anybody really think this “pre-check” is going to be more accurate?

And the TSA combines the best of government bureaucracy with the best of private contractors.  With the information, if they draw the conclusion that you’re a tax cheat to use an existing example, will they report you to the IRS?  Will they sell your contact information to tax lawyers?  Will this information end up in the FBI’s new biometric database, essentially making you a part of every criminal investigation from now on?  Now imagine they got something wrong in the file and ask the same questions.

And how secure are they keeping this information, once collected?  Isn’t a database of “good citizens” worth an enormous amount to hackers and an ideal terrorist target?  Imagine a terroritst looking for someone who can get a bomb onto the plane, and this database sitting out there, packed with juicy, blackmailable details about highly trusted, frequent travelers.  As if I didn’t know, whose responsibility is it when the information is used for identity theft?

And it’s not like you’re guaranteed a spot.  You open up your life to TSA inspection, trust them to guard your data, and in return, they CONSIDER treating you like a human being.  Speaking of which, what happens to the “wash-outs”?  If you don’t qualify, do they dump you on the No-Fly list?

Plus, putting on my tinfoil hat (no, it wasn’t on so far—those are all issues that come up routinely), if this is “successful,” obviously they can roll it out to all travelers, “just to be safe,” and rescind the “benefits” of basic human dignity to the original participants.  And then it’ll be routine, linked to the Census or Selective Service.

After all…there’s nothing to fear if you don’t have anything to hide, right?

In a phrase This is fascism.  Now, because just enough influential people have rightly complained to our stupid govt about this Keystone Kops-meets-the-Gestapo idiocy occupying our airports, they get a free pass to shut up and continue unabated the terrorist fiction that allows the fiction we need a police state with expensive taxpayer-paid devices our retarded govt bought that does not detect traces of explosives as guaranteed by the scammers who impressed some doltish conservative politician our security and their bankroll must be met.

It’s a scam, folks, a complete scam.  Blame the goddamn government, both parties, the few not traitors to the taxpayers and the Constitution imbeciles.

For once; I would like to see people provide solutions rather than criticisms and faaar faaar fetched what if scenarios as criticisms. Don’t get me wrong. As a regular “discminatee” of the TSA;  I am far from a fan of them. I hear security experts and regular Joes and Janes jump up and down whenever a new security measure is proposed by the TSA. Fair enough as a response to dumbass measures. But maybe it’s about time we used these forums to discuss what we think of as better measures than criticisms after criticisms.

Okay Ak… How does this sound?

First, forget trying to investigate individuals. The assumption that you can tell who is and is not a risk without massive amounts of ugly discrimination is flawed. You are gonna have to check everyone and everything brought on board. 

Second, stop complaining about security checks and just accept them. It is the price we pay for our foreign policy. We have spent the better part of the last hundred years poking the hornets nest that is the Middle East. It took a surprisingly long time, but we finally got stung. As long as we continue to do things abroad that inspire the kind of hatred that the 9/11 hijackers and their supporters have for us, we are going to continue to get stung. What we DON’T want to do is insulate some Americans and not others (especially those in positions of power) from having to deal with the consequences of our collective decisions. The inconvenience of having to take off your shoes and belts and take your laptops out before you get on a plane is a small price to pay to continue business as usual in the world for those that wish to do so.

Third, the budget for the TSA should be paid for by taxing airline tickets. We need to see what this is costing us as a line item on our ticket. I know, this won’t do anything to help make passing through airport security easier. But, it will keep us aware that this is costing us more than just stripping for the cameras.

Fourth, simply add more security lines. In fact, it seems to me it would be easier if we checked security when you are boarding the airplane. That way, you know you aren’t going to miss your plane, you wouldn’t have to stand in line as long (you could sit until it is your turn) and friends and relatives could say their hellos/goodbyes with you at the gate like they used to. We don’t do that because it would cost more money (more equipment, more screeners, etc.) . So, part of our inconvenience comes simply because we are too cheap to pay for better service.

Fifth, people should learn not to wear belts and metal jewelry when they travel. Also, don’t make people take off their shoes. If there is something wrong with the machines that they can’t detect whatever they are supposed to detect that low to the ground….duh…fix them! Spend the money and fix them!

Taking out your laptop isn’t a big deal. Taking off your clothes and putting them back on is!

So, I think the basic problem is we are too cheap to spend the money to do a good job of it. Letting some people off the hook because they are government approved seems like a way of allowing the privileged to keep their money, keep their foreign policy while making the less privileged pay for it. Ha! Its the American way after all.

I think this is a terrible idea!  First of all - what is the criteria? Who decides who is an acceptable risk and who is not?  Couldn’t the decision be arbitrary depending on the bias of the people viewing the information? What will they do with this information once they’ve passed judgment on my character? And there are people in this country who want to do harm, and it’s entirely possible for them to live a squeaky clean life for years in preparation for just such an opportunity.

Also - I think I have been a good citizen all my life.  But I am a progressive.  What if a very socially conservative government comes in to power and changes the criteria to suit their religious or cultural biases?

I really can’t understand what people are getting all worked up about. The program is voluntary, the only penalty for not participating (i.e. not sharing your precious information) is that you have to wait in line; this is what we’ve all been doing since 9/11 so nothing will change for you.

To say that “ seems to be submitting travelers to other, perhaps equally intrusive, forms of personal scrutiny.” is ridiculous! Just chose to not be in the program.

Roger, the problem is that it’s now seen as a “bonus” to fly with human respect and dignity, something that you should jump through hoops for, if you want it.  Being a customer doesn’t entitle you to service, let alone service with a smile.

And the problem is that, next year (or in ten years), they’ll demand the same hoops for everybody, because they can point to the people who’ve been subjected to the background check and say, these people did it happily and lots of people supported their doing it.  And there have only been a few dozen stalking or identity theft incidents provably linked to the program…

There’s also example after example of careless handling of data and many errors.

Plus—and this goes to Ak’s suggestion, too—the improvement in safety is negligible.  The TSA has failed nearly ever test it’s been given, even when announced.  They tell us happily that their measures would never stop any of the supposed terrorist attacks that have been foiled solely by the ineptitude of the suspect.  And yet, with all these screwups, how many people have died?

Maybe the problem was already solved when we protected the cockpit, preventing anybody from turning the plane into a weapon, and all the rest of this mess is wasted effort and money (don’t forget the money you waste by standing around when you could be productive, by the way) that only serves to deprive us of our civil liberties.

Note that politicians and the media have been drawing attention to our completely insecure railways for ten years, with how many terrorist attacks?  Maybe a vehicle that can’t be easily turned into a weapon isn’t a very good target.  After all, you can only kill the passengers.

The right way to do this is to use chemical scanners at the entrances.  Without worrying about who is who, sniff the air for explosives and poisons.  Worry about who’s carrying it only if something is detected, lock the area down and bring out security and cops.  Walk through a metal detector on the way to the gate, too, just for the sake of it.

Right there, that should take care of all impersonal threats without treating people like criminals for having the nerve to want to travel.  Anything beyond that, well, a workaholic boarding the plane contagious with the flu could do far more damage than a terrorist with a ceramic knife.

As a traveler with DOD and DOE clearances, I’ve always wondered why I just couldn’t flash by site badge and board the plan. If the DOD has trust why not TSA?

So what’s to say if someone gets a “trusted traveler” pass and goes nuts in 3 years from now and blows up a plane?  What’s to say and actual terrorist slips into the program and behaves himself for a few years when the guard is down…... then BOOM? This is nothing more than the DHS/TSA wanting to gather personal information and make a few bucks on the side. It’s all a bunch of BS!

The trouble with this idea is that it provides a way for a terrorist to get a bomb on a plane without ever going through a security check where there is currently no way for that to happen. All they have to do is get the credentials to do it.

If they tried to sneak a bomb on a plane now, they get one chance to succeed and blow themselves up or they end up in Guantanamo for life. This is a very good deterrent. With this program, there is little penalty for failure. If you get the clearance, you stand a much better than 50% chance of getting on that plane with a bomb. If you don’t get the clearance, you lose very little.

This is a bad idea. It will only encourage terrorists. It is exchanging a physical deterrent for a bureaucratic one. If you were a terrorist would you rather try to fool a machine or a bureaucrat?

I would like to see people provide solutions rather than criticisms and faaar faaar fetched what if scenarios as criticisms. Don’t get me wrong. As a regular “discminatee” of the TSA;  I am far from a fan of them. I hear security experts and regular Joes and Janes jump up and down whenever a new security measure is proposed by the TSA.

Homay, the problem with demanding solutions is that a lot of us don’t see this as a problem to be solved.  Even taking into account THE terrorist attack, flying is far safer and far more secure than any other mode of transportation by its nature.  And once the cockpit became secure from the passengers, we’ve basically eliminated the chance of a repeat of that event, returning safety to its normal levels.

Nobody has shown any real risk beyond that, have they?  As you can read in last week’s “MuckReads” article here, all the FBI’s terror collars have been bogus.

So arguably, any measure beyond that is itself an attack on the American people by violating our rights in the name of protecting us from an imaginary threat.  Why imaginary?  Because there are many more vulnerable targets that can kill and scare many more people than just blowing up a plane.  And if you want to be seriously paranoid, what idiot would board the plane through security when you can just buy a black market surface-to-air missile?

As I said, if we absolutely must have more security (and an evidence-based argument must be made for the need, first:  Show me the elevated risk and why we should start worrying about it now), then use chemical scanners at entrances, including those for the staff and arrivals.  If the machines smell explosives, seal that section and investigate the people there.  Done, without anybody needing to take off their shoes, waste an hour standing in line, or being presumed criminal for not living next door to their families or business associates.