I love PreCheck. Which is to say that I love not have to stand in interminable bureaucratic lines to exercise my right to travel. And I love not have to go through a dance of shoes and liquid freedom baggies. I go through security quickly and in a somewhat more dignified manner.
And in the meantime TSA doesn’t waste its resources screening me, since I’m pretty obviously not a terrorist threat.
At first they worked with airlines to identify frequent flyers with travel patterns they were confident could be considered low risk. And they folded in folks who had been extensively screened through programs like Global Entry — if folks were ok to enter the U.S. without an interrogation, odds on they were ok to wear their shoes through the airport security checkpoint.
Getting Global Entry made a vast difference, it meant I was able to use PreCheck not just when flying an airline with which I had elite status but every time I flew (since I had a ‘Known Traveler Number’ to enter in my reservations).
But PreCheck has gotten slow. It’s lost some of its luster. Transportation researcher Bob Poole explains why, and why he believes that TSA is making some security missteps in their administration of the program.
PreCheck already claims to be screening a quarter of all airline passengers, and the goal is to be at 50% by the end of 2014.
They’re set to reach this new milestone by:
- Offering paid memberships to PreCheck. For $85 you can get registered, and they haven’t made clear what sort of investigating is being done.
- Picking people based on their travel histories and profiles who seem low risk. These folks don’t even expect to be given PreCheck, but their boarding passes appear with a Golden Ticket. This actually slows down the lanes, because PreCheck neophytes don’t know not to take off their shoes, take out their computer, and unpack their dangerous liquids.
- Picking people out of line at random.
Ok, they’re not exactly picking people out at random. But they might as well be. Here’s how Poole describes it:
TSA is using some of its Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) to watch people waiting in the regular screening lines, visually identify some of them as “low-enough risk,” and invite them to shift to the PreCheck lane. There is no pretense of any kind of background check in these cases—just the unscientific hunch of the BDOs that the person appears to be low-risk.
Poole believes the ‘Managed Inclusion’ program poses a security risk because the Behavior Detection program has been demonstrated to be so ineffective as to be completely useless. So it’s effectively random inclusion rather than risk-based screening.
But since PreCheck is still screening, and taking off shoes didn’t materially contribute to security, little security is actually lost.
While “clogging up the PreCheck lanes” is a problem — screening half of all passengers through what’s far from half of all lanes is going to present a huge logistical challenge — it isn’t fair to say that security is any more lax as a result of the methods being employed.
The myth of perfect security prior to PreCheck is just that, and comparing actual screening through the PreCheck program with the actual value of screening done outside of PreCheck are what needs to be realistically compared.
PreCheck has gotten too crowded because people are using it wrong, spending way too much time unnecessarily going through the motions as though they weren’t in a PreCheck lane. And because there are now more people for the PreCheck lines than those lines can quickly process, even if they were using the lines properly.
But PreCheck isn’t making us less safe, even though the TSA is using its ineffective and poorly-trained Behavior Detection Officers to meet a quota of half of passengers becoming eligible for PreCheck.
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