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RAND: Trusted Traveler Program Should Result in Security Benefits

05/26/2011 -

Even if terrorists rush to apply for a trusted traveler program and some get accepted, commercial flights would still be more secure than if no trusted traveler program existed in most circumstances, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation.

“If our model of detection performance is reasonable, it is clear that, a trusted traveler program could produce security benefits,”the report concludes, even if terrorists try to game or exploit the system.

RAND's conclusion, however, is theoretical: a government-run trusted traveler program does not exist yet, even though Congress gave the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) authority to create one back in 2001 when the agency was founded.

But the report comes as TSA Administrator John Pistole has repeatedly said in speeches that his agency will begin to cautiously move away from the "one-size-fits-all" model of passenger security screening currently employed at U.S. airports. In a speech last week, Pistole told the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) at its annual Aviation Security Summit that TSA has begun to develop a "long-term security construct"using "identity-based screening," in other words, a trusted traveler program.

The creation of a trusted traveler program would be an acknowledgement that nearly every passenger that boards a plane only wants to land safely-- an assumption Pistole agrees with. “The vast majority of the 628 million annual air travelers present little-to-no risk of committing an act of terrorism,” he told the AAAE last week.

Although a trusted traveler program could be created in a myriad of ways, the basic framework remains simple.

Fliers provide personal information, including biometrics, and submit to a background check to verify whether they present a threat to commercial aviation or not. If accepted into the program, trusted travelers receive reduced and expedited security screening and thus a more convenient and comfortable travel experience. Most trusted traveler advocates believe this would mean passengers would no longer have to arrive at the airport early, take off their shoes, remove their laptops from their carry-on bag, or submit to controversial  full body scans or enhanced pat-downs. (Security screeners would reserve the right to increase the intensity of the screening if a trusted traveler raised suspicions or where chosen randomly for secondary screening.)

While making flying more comfortable for vetted fliers, the program should also deliver increased security benefits as freed-up resources are allocated to the public security line, according to trusted traveler advocates. The worry, however, is that terrorists could game a trusted traveler program, receive reduced screening, and smuggle a weapon on board a plane in an attempt to hijack it or perpetrate another 9-11-style attack.

According to RAND’s modeling, for a trusted traveler program to be successful it must balance its desire to deter terrorists from applying to the program while at the same time delivering clear benefits to innocent travelers who take the time to apply and pay the registration fee. The major variable then, according to the report, is how effective the background check will be. That's because what makes the program desirable to the flying public--less intrusive security screening--also makes it attractive to a terrorist.

A well-performing program, says RAND, must implement a background check process that results in a high “true positive rate”--accurately determine those who present a threat to commercial aviation--and a low “false positive rate”--those innocent fliers denied trusted traveler status but who present no threat to commercial aviation.

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