Are You Registered, Traveler?
Jeff Milchen and Jeffrey Kaplan
August 03, 2004
A proposed "Registered Traveler" program is being touted by the Transportation Security Administration as a way to get frequent travelers through security lines quickly. But it's unlikely that registering—and submitting to a background check and retina scan—will remain truly voluntary, say these experts. There's no substitute for well-trained, careful people doing security checks—even if it takes a little longer.
Jeff Milchen founded ReclaimDemocracy.org , a nonprofit organization working to revitalize democracy and defend constitutional rights. Jeffrey Kaplan has worked for 25 as an information technology consultant.
If you’re a frequent flier, you might soon enjoy a choice other than “window” or “aisle" upon check-in at several U.S. airports. How about fingerprinting, a retina scan and background check by the federal government?
Why would anyone do such things voluntarily? The reward might entice any regular traveler: a special ID card entitling them to use an “express lane” for faster security screening. It’s all part of the Transportation Security Administration's "Registered Traveler" program , now under testing with selected airlines and passengers in Minneapolis, Houston and Los Angeles and slated to debut at airports in Washington, D.C., and Boston this month.
The TSA says the program will speed passage for travelers who pose little security risk and allow screeners to focus greater attention on higher-risk passengers.
Critics, however, suspect that Registered Traveler is a back-door attempt to implement the discredited Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II). The TSA fueled such fears by scheduling the test period for Registered Traveler to overlap with Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's July 14 proclamation that CAPPS II was being shelved even before trial runs. His announcement followed concerted opposition from privacy advocates and a damning report last spring by congressional researchers at the General Accounting Office.
Registered Traveler goes even further, in some ways, than CAPPS II, which required computerized background checks for all airline passengers, but never proposed measures as invasive as fingerprinting or retinal scans.
Registered Traveler indeed may speed passage for people who have no privacy qualms and the ability to pay an undisclosed annual fee for the privilege, but it also brings serious drawbacks—it’s unlikely to remain truly voluntary, and could well make executing an attack easier for any terrorist ring.
Would-be terrorists simply could probe the system by having each member apply for “registered” status until a sufficient number qualified. They then could embark on a mission with greater confidence than under a more random screening process or one that relies on well-trained personnel to select passengers for scrutiny.
That weakness should be apparent to anyone who seriously studies the proposal, so it’s hard not to suspect the TSA and airlines are more concerned with giving the appearance of security than actually providing it.
The trouble is, excellent security takes time, causes some delays, and is incompatible with maximizing short-term airline profits. As in other aspects of travel, there's an inherent trade-off between speed and safety. But rather than discuss these difficult choices publicly, the TSA and airlines prefer to sell Americans on a different, false choice—that we must sacrifice privacy to be secure. The evidence argues otherwise.
For example, the 9/11 Commission noted that nine of the 19 hijackers were identified as safety risks by already-existing security measures when they checked in for their flights. Luggage checked by those nine men was inspected, but the killers boarded their flights uneventfully because security was focused myopically on bomb threats.
The 9/11 killers succeeded because available information wasn’t used effectively and due to glaring inadequacies such as insecure cockpit doors (a vulnerability still not sufficiently addressed).
While the TSA will mute privacy concerns by starting Registered Traveler as an opt-in program, it rapidly will become coercive if unregistered travelers are forced to endure unreasonably long lines. And how will passengers challenge the accuracy of data if the government screeners tell us we’re ineligible for the new ID? Presently, we possess no right to know what information the government digs up on us—never mind a right to correct mistakes.
Many people might opt for speedier passage through airports rather than slowing down operations to achieve incremental safety improvements. After all, an airline trip still is statistically safer than car travel. So long as we honestly confront the real issues necessary to maximize security—delays and, yes, profiling—we’ll end up with a better system than we will by dodging tough choices.
Instead, we’re on the verge of creating what’s likely to become the largest surveillance system in American history, but with virtually no public awareness.
Both the Bush administration and Congress seem predisposed to extend federal power in the name of security, but many of their measures endanger our freedom and, by spending limited resources on ineffective measures, our safety, too.
Terrorists won’t object to Registered Traveler, but citizens who value their privacy and safety should. The program should be aborted before it becomes coercive and further diverts attention from the critical choices we must make.