Three years ago, I was one of those who objected when the Transportation Services Administration rolled out dramatic new security measures, including “near-naked” full-body screening and aggressive patdowns. Others protested too, but eventually — what choice did we have? — we fell in line. If you fly, you know the routine: belts, shoes, and jackets off, pockets empty, laptops out, lotions in a plastic bag, assume-the-position for the body scan and, after all that, there’s still a good chance for a re-screening. You’d be amazed the trouble a bottle of Poland Spring can cause.
Last week I’m queuing up for security when an agent directs me to another line. I wonder what I’ve done wrong but start removing my shoes anyway. “No, you can keep them on,” a TSA screener says. Coat? Keep that on too. Computer? Stays in the bag. Even my glasses. Usually in my shirt pocket, they almost always trip me up. No longer. The only thing I need to send through separately is my smartphone. And instead of a full-body scan I simply walk through a standard-issue metal detector.
I’m elated, feeling as if I’ve just avoided some dreaded hazing and gained back a measure of freedom. But it turns out that this freedom itself comes at great cost.
Two years ago, the TSA began a program called PreCheck, which allowed a select few to bypass regular security lines. Enrollment was tough and included an extensive background check. This year the agency has decided to expand PreCheck, hoping by the end of the year to have about 25 percent of the traveling public using the faster and less-intrusive screening. Clearly, a quarter of travelers aren’t going to go through background checks within a month and a half, so instead the TSA is working with airlines’ frequent-flyer programs, inviting members to participate based on their traveling history. There’s nothing for the passenger to do but agree, and the agency does the rest.
The new program makes enormous sense. In the aftermath of 9/11, as the TSA was created and security dramatically escalated, some people suggested that it was foolish to target everyone. Just go after those with a swarthy appearance, they said, the ones who look like they might be from the Mideast. The bigotry of the argument notwithstanding, it was also foolish; remember Timothy McVeigh? And besides, terrorists could readily exploit such crude distinctions. If we had a policy of exempting, say, seniors, the disabled, men in business suits, and the like, then such folks would easily be recruited.
Still, there is something to the claim that not everyone is equally likely to be a terrorist. Rather than asking who it thinks to be unsafe, however, the TSA is doing the reverse, trying to figure out who is actually safe. If you fly a lot, if you’ve got a stable job, if your credit rating is strong — all of these become indicators that you are probably not a danger. By using lots of data to exclude those who are unlikely to be a threat, screeners can focus their attentions on those about whom there is less certainty. Everyone, seemingly, ends up winning.
However, the only way to qualify for PreCheck is to let the TSA learn an awful lot about you. And as the push grows to include ever more of the flying public in the program, the TSA will have to have available to it all sorts of information: not only flight records, but also financial data, tax returns, family status, employment history, living situations. No question, all of those data collected together would provide a good profile about whether someone is going to be a danger or not. But it’s also breathtakingly intrusive.
Earlier this year, while defending the National Security Administration’s widespread spying efforts, President Obama talked about the “tradeoffs” between security and privacy. The right to travel is an inherent American freedom, something we usually do without any background checks. But with PreCheck, that right increasingly comes only if we are willing to allow further expansion of the government’s surveillance of its citizens. Sadly, I suspect, most of us — and perhaps me too — will do as we’ve done before: shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to yet another tradeoff.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org