Checking In On PreCheck

Amar Toor examines the TSA program that expedites the security screening process for travelers who either have applied for the program or who have been invited by “behavior-detection officers”:

There are … doubts over whether the TSA’s behavior-detection methods are even effective at identifying potential threats. A November report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that behavior-detection techniques work only “slightly better than chance”, and that they may be applied on inconsistent or subjective bases. The report was especially discouraging considering that the TSA has spent an estimated $1 billion on implementing behavior-detection protocols since launching the program in 2007. The TSA later contested the report’s findings, saying they were based on a survey of academic studies focused on identifying liars, rather than the suspicious behaviors that its agents are looking for. …

Yet [the Cato Institute’s Director of Information Policy Studies Jim] Harper and security experts see value in PreCheck’s unpredictability. TSA agents select passengers to pass through PreCheck at irregular times and locations, usually depending on queue length, and some eligible travelers are randomly selected prior to going through security. That makes it harder for would-be terrorists to exploit the system, but Harper still has reservations about a two-tiered approach to airport security. As the program expands, he argues, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where affluent passengers whisk through PreCheck, while poorer or less experienced travelers remain trapped in longer lines.

Update from a reader:

Your note and link about TSA PreCheck is a little off base – and I should know as I designed and implemented PreCheck for United! There are currently five methods of obtaining access to the TSA PreCheck lane:

1) qualify for PreCheck based on flight criteria, 2) qualify based on membership in the DHS Global Entry program (which requires a background check and in-person interview), 3) qualify based on membership in the new TSA PreCheck application program (which again requires a background check and in-person interview but is cheaper than Global Entry), 4) have your itinerary selected at random by the TSA’s black box, and 5) be admitted to the lane by a Behavioral Detection Officer.

Of all of these, selection by BDO is a tiny, tiny percentage of the total.  I’m not in a place to speak about how well the BDO’s do their jobs, but I know for a fact that the first four methods I mentioned (and a sixth that may or may not occur this year) are designed thoughtfully and do provide a less stringent security posture for people who concretely pose less risk.

The TSA’s stated goal is to get an ever larger share of the traveling public into the more trusted security screening lanes over this year and the next, and I expect we can return to pre-9/11 screening for a large majority of passengers within the next five years.  This will all be done without any BDOs.