Checking Airport Screening
THE TRUSTED TRAVELER PROGRAM, administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), includes the popular PreCheck program, which allows registered passengers to go through an expedited screening process when entering airport terminals. PreCheck, which was launched in select airports at the end of 2011, is now being rolled out across the country, and three million Americans have already applied for the program. But some experts are raising concerns that it sacrifices security for convenience.
PreCheck allows approved flyers to proceed through a special security line where they do not have to remove shoes, belts, or jackets and can keep laptops and travel-size liquids in their bags. The agency says this new approach is one of several intelligence-driven, riskbased initiatives that help TSA move away from a one-size-fits-all security model to provide the most effective security in the most efficient way.
When PreCheck was first launched at select airports in 2011, passengers enrolled in frequent flyer programs were invited by participating airlines to opt in to the program. Since then, PreCheck security lanes have been rolled out in more than 100 airports across the country, and expedited screening benefits were extended to all active U.S. military personnel. Starting in December 2013, any U.S. citizen could apply to the program.
To apply, American citizens who have not been convicted of serious felonies must pay an $85 application fee and visit one of the 300 enrollment centers that will open across the country in 2014. At the center, applicants will present identity and citizenship documentation and have their fingerprints taken. If an applicant is accepted, they will be issued a Known Traveler Number, which will give them PreCheck lane access for five years.
Other trusted traveler programs cater to international travelers. Global Entry allows preapproved U.S. citizens to skip customs lines and re-enter the country by scanning their passports and fingerprints at automated kiosks. Programs such as SENTRI and NEXUS allow approved Mexican and Canadian citizens to travel between the United States and their respective countries more quickly.
What sets PreCheck apart from these other programs is its appeal to primarily domestic travelers—PreCheck is the only program that does not require a passport to apply. The program targets the approximately 210 million U.S. citizens who don’t have passports, according to the TSA, so that participation in expedited screening programs will be the norm, not the exception.
And Congress is pushing the TSA to make PreCheck more widely available with its 2014 spending bill. The $1 trillion bipartisan spending deal includes provisions that require the TSA to increase the number of U.S. citizens who are eligible for expedited screening programs, such as PreCheck, by relying more heavily on privatized screening. By late this month, the agency must be prepared to approve a quarter of Americans for expedited screening programs, and by the end of 2014, one in two Americans should be eligible.
This continuing extension of expedited screening to more and more Americans is in accordance with how the TSA has rolled out its PreCheck program so far, says Jeff Price, CPP, a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and the owner of an aviation management consulting company. “I think they’re going to continue to pave the way for more populations,” Price tells Security Management. “I would imagine they’ll continue to identify audiences that they can open the program up to. Frankly, the downside to the frequent flyers is that it used to be a really short line, but now the reality is that once the program is fully integrated, that’s going to be the long line. The short line is going to be the one with the current security measures.”
PreCheck isn’t the only way to breeze through expedited screening lines at the airport. A policy under the program allows trained TSA officers to invite passengers who are deemed to be nonthreatening to go through the PreCheck line. The policy, called managed inclusion, involves “multiple layers of security to indirectly conduct a real-time threat assessment of passengers at select airports,” according to the TSA Web site. The TSA does not divulge specific information on the program to the public to prevent wrongdoers from taking advantage of the system.
According to TSA’s Web site, teams of behavior detection officers and explosives-detection canines conduct real-time risk assessments of passengers waiting in regular security lines. If a passenger doesn’t raise any red flags from the officers or canine team, the passenger is sent to the PreCheck line. Managed inclusion is used at certain checkpoints to speed up security lines, according to the Web site.
Behavior detection programs, like managed inclusion, are relied on as the first line of defense against violent airport visitors who plan to cause trouble in main terminals before they are screened. More focus has been placed on detecting potential offenders in public areas of airports after a man opened fire in a Los Angeles International Airport terminal last November, killing a TSA officer and injuring several others.
Price says he believes the practice of behavior detection would be more effective if TSA employees were trained with basic assessment skills instead of relying on a small group of trained officers. Major Israeli airports and some individual U.S. airports have adopted this practice, Price says. "You train everyone in the airport to be on the lookout. Part of it is beyond telling everyone that if you see something, say something. You actually give them the skills they need to look out for the bad guys.”
Although the TSA has said that managed inclusion is “the best security we have today,” a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) discounts the very practice that the TSA uses to determine who should be approved for expedited screening. The report also sheds some more light on how behavior detection programs like managed inclusion work. The GAO assessed TSA’s behavior detection activities, specifically the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT). About 3,000 behavior detection officers have been deployed to 176 U.S. airports under the SPOT program, and the TSA has spent $900 million on the program since it was fully deployed in 2007.
TSA’s behavior detection officers are trained to identify passenger behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception using SPOT. If a person displays one or more of these indicators, they are taken aside for additional screening of their carry-on baggage and themselves, and law enforcement officers step in if necessary.
For the report, the GAO reviewed more than 400 academic and government research studies on behavior-based deception detection and assessed the studies against established practices and statistics. The analysis found that the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance, at 54 percent.
The report also brought into question how behavioral indicators are used from officer to officer. Many behavior detection officers and TSA officials interviewed by the GAO said that some of the behavioral indicators are subjective and are not consistently interpreted. Furthermore, the report found that there is a statistically significant relationship between the length of time an individual has been a behavior detection officer and the number of people the officer deems suspicious.
Ultimately, the GAO report recommended that the TSA limit future funding for behavior detection activities, but DHS did not concur with the recommendation. As part of its response to the GAO’s recommendation, the DHS argued that the TSA’s overall security program is composed of interrelated parts, and disrupting one piece of the multilayered approach may have an adverse effect on other pieces.
Price says that the report might be flawed because it’s statistically impossible to determine how effective the TSA’s detection programs are in deterring potential terrorists. “The criticism of the program is that it hasn’t found any terrorists, " Price notes. “There’s no way to measure that. How often can you tell that someone decided not to rob your house because your door was locked? Statistically, this kind of thing is hard to prove.”
However, the GAO found that the impact of behavior detection activities on TSA’s overall security program is unknown. “TSA has not developed the performance measures that would allow it to assess the effectiveness of its behavior detection activities compared with other screening methods, such as physical screening,” testified Stephen Lord, director of the homeland security and justice section of the GAO, before a House subcommittee.
After more than a decade of rigorously screening every person who enters an airplane, the TSA is giving low-risk travelers a break with its PreCheck program. Airport security is beginning to look more like it did before 9-11, raising the question of whether this new era of screening will be enough, Price says. “The American people for over a decade have said, 'Look, the vast majority of us are not terrorists, why are you treating us like this?'” Price explains. “[PreCheck] is TSA’s response. It says, 'You’re right, the vast majority of you are not terrorists, so let’s not treat you all as that, let’s try to identify our higher risk population…You don’t get it both ways. We either screen everybody or we decide that the majority of you are not a big risk and you accept a certain level of risk.'”