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Out of Control Policy Blog

TSA Needs a Risk-Based Approach to Airport Security

Robert Poole
November 17, 2010, 2:13pm

As I’ve frequently noted in my Airport Security Newsletter, intrusive screening of everyone is inherent in the TSA’s current approach to airport security, which treats all air travelers as equally likely to be a terrorist threat. The only feasible way to remove body-scanning (or the intrusive pat-down alternative) as standard procedure is to change TSA’s screening model to one that is risk-based. In practice, that would mean separating air travelers (other than those on the No-Fly list, who are automatically denied passage) into three basic groups:

  1. Trusted Travelers, who have passed a background check and are issued a biometric ID card that proves (when they arrive at the security checkpoint) that they are the person who was cleared. This group would include cockpit crews, anyone holding a government security clearance, anyone already a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Global Entry, Sentri, and Nexus, and anyone who applied and was accepted into a new Trusted Traveler program. These people would get to bypass regular security lanes  upon having their biometric card checked at the airport, subject only to random screening of a small fraction.
  2. High-risk travelers, either those about whom no information is known or who are flagged by the various Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence lists as warranting “Selectee” status. They would be the only ones facing body-scanners or pat-downs as mandatory, routine screening.
  3. Ordinary travelers—basically everyone else, who would go through metal detector and put carry-ons through 2-D X-ray machines. They would not have to remove shoes or jackets, and could travel with liquids. A small fraction of this group would be subject to random “Selectee”-type screening.

This type of risk-based screening would focus TSA resources on the travelers that should receive the most scrutiny by reducing the use of resources on low-risk travelers. It would also save considerable sums of taxpayer dollars, reducing screener payroll and equipment costs - no more body scanners would be purchased since TSA already owns enough to use only for the secondary screening needed for the above program.

As for TSA claims that Trusted Traveler would be too risky, they cannot make that claim with a straight face, for two reasons. First, their parent agency DHS operates the three border-crossing programs noted above (Global Entry, Sentri, and Nexus) which operate on exactly the same principle. Second, TSA itself applies this principle for the hundreds of thousands of people who work at airports and need access to secure areas to do their jobs. Those people must pass an FBI criminal history background check, which entitles them to an ID card giving them unescorted access to secure airport areas. Some of these people have access to planes on the tarmac, which means they could do damaging things to those planes. Yet TSA accepts this risk trade-off.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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