All-Seeing TSA?

Inept agency seeks help


Seeking help with its Trusted Traveler Program, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a request in January for information "to obtain market research, test, and demonstration information relative to the possible expansion of expedited aviation physical screening initiatives." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that this is another step toward a total surveillance state. 

As the TSA solicits companies experienced in crunching commercial information, the ACLU's Jay Stanley worries that "the risk-assessment approach to security will drive the government toward the use of more and more data on individuals." Despite the TSA's assurances that only volunteers will be scrutinized, Stanley envisions "a system in which simply everyone has a Pre-Check ID, and the hapless [travelers] who can't get one become a security underclass."

But the TSA may just be struggling to bridge its competence gap. The agency has been repeatedly dinged for purchasing expensive equipment that then gathers dust in warehouses and for deploying procedures without first determining their effectiveness. In 2012, two years after the Government Accountability Office first called out the TSA for implementing behavioral screening without validating its scientific basis, a follow-up report pointed out that the agency still hadn't determined whether the program reliably detects security risks.

Hiring market research companies to screen travelers may well have negative implications for privacy. But the TSA's aim may simply be to pass some of its responsibilities to people who can actually handle them.