Policy

TSA Pre-Screening, Now With Access to Your Shopping Habits

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Three stooges TSA agents

The Transportation Security Adminstration wants a little help with its trusted traveler program. More to the point, the TSA is looking for private providers who can demonstrate some competency in pre-screening travelers who volunteer for the process in search of a quicker route through the airport that involves, perhaps, a bit less fondling and probing. Along those lines, the TSA issued a market research request for information last week "to obtain market research, test, and demonstration information relative to the possible expansion of expedited aviation physical screening initiatives." The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that this is just another step toward a total-surveillance security state, and it just might be. But it also likely represents an opportunity for the TSA to bypass its own awe-inspiring history of incompetence — or to, once again, screw something up.

What the TSA is looking for is described thusly in its RFI:

The TSA is interested in evaluating the current/near term state of commercial solutions to be designed, developed, and operated by entities that are established as TSA regulated entities or are providing demonstration support in conjunction with such an entity.  TSA is particularly interested in techniques that may be used to make members of the traveling public aware of the demonstration, to enroll them for this pre-screening, to use non-governmental data elements to generate an assessment of the risk to the aviation transportation system that may be posed by a specific individual, and to communicate the identity of persons who have successfully passed this risk based assessment to TSA's Secure Flight.

There's much talk in the overall document of giving responding companies acess to Social Security data and the like, but it's obviouc that the TSA wants private companies experienced in compiling and crunching commercial data to work their magic on frequent flyers.

The ACLU's Jay Stanley frets, understandably:

This would be a major step toward turning the agency's Pre-Check whitelist into the insidious kind of passenger profiling system that was proposed under the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11, and a confirmation of our longstanding warnings that the logic of the risk-assessment approach to security will drive the government toward the use of more and more data on individuals.

That the TSA insists participation is voluntary doesn't satisfy the civil liberties group, since the TSA is openly eager to encourage as much participation as possible. "[U]ltimately," warns Stanley, "[W]e face the prospect of a two-class airline security system, or even a system in which simply everyone has a Pre-Check ID, and the hapless group who can't get one become a security underclass."

There is a risk that pre-screening — now drawing upon Safeway's knowledge of your (well … my) impressive wine habit and peculiar online purchases — will become de rigeur for any sort of easy travel, with refuseniks and those who can't qualify subject to ever-increasing barriers to travel by air (or even other methods, as the TSA's reach extends). That could, ultimately, be where this ends up.

My guess, though, is that, while security-state barriers to transportation may be the ultimate result, what we're actually seeing is a TSA effort to bridge its Grand Canyon-esque competency gap. I've written before that "the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do" and that the agency has been dinged repeatedly for purchasing equipment that then gathers dust in warehouses and for deploying procedures without first making the slightest effort to determine their effectiveness.

In 2010, seven years after the TSA initiated its behavioral Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, the GAO cautioned, "TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment." In the March 2012 report, the GAO pointed out that a flawed SPOT study performed since that time still "was not designed to fully validate whether behavior detection can be used to reliably identify individuals in an airport environment who pose a security risk."

The market research request for information may well be a step along the road to Panopticon. But it's likely being taken not with sinister intent, but by incompetent bureaucrats trying to offload some of their responsibilities to anybody who might actually be able to perform them.