PreCheck Expansion Raises Questions

As a long-time supporter of the concept of risk-based security, and an early member of PreCheck, I am both pleased and troubled by its rapid expansion over the past year. TSA set what sounded like an impossible goal for 2013—to be screening 25% of daily passengers in PreCheck lanes by the end of the year. Including members recruited via airline frequent flier programs, members of Global Entry and the other CBP trusted traveler programs, and others admitted to PreCheck lanes (see below), TSA said it met that 2013 goal.

As 2014 begins, PreCheck lanes exist at 114 U.S. airports, and TSA’s new program offering $85 memberships to non-frequent flier is under way, with dozens of enrollment sites in operation thus far, and several hundred promised later this year, both at airports and in various other locations. And TSA’s PreCheck goal for this year is to be screening half of each day’s air travelers by year-end.

The large increase in numbers is being accomplished in three ways. One is the paid membership program, which requires the applicant to fill out a form, be fingerprinted, and pay $85. Exactly what kind of background check those people are getting remains unclear, though the fingerprints would enable the same kind of FBI criminal history background check required for Global Entry members and for airport workers with access to secure areas. But because of the other two ways PreCheck is being expanded, I doubt that any such background checks are taking place.

The second approach is selecting travelers who have not applied and putting the PreCheck symbol on their boarding pass for a particular flight. It appears that this is done via a new TSA algorithm that combines airline travel history with the standard Secure Flight checks performed on all travelers to define such people as low-enough risk to give them a “free sample” of PreCheck processing. Many people have been surprised to find the PreCheck symbol on their boarding pass and then be directed by the document checker to the PreCheck lane.

But the third approach, called “Managed Inclusion,” is the one I find most disconcerting. TSA is using some of its Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) to watch people waiting in the regular screening lines, visually identify some of them as “low-enough risk,” and invite them to shift to the PreCheck lane. There is no pretense of any kind of background check in these cases—just the unscientific hunch of the BDOs that the person appears to be low-risk.

Managed Inclusion raises serious security questions, since there is no checking of anything beyond the same Secure Flight check against watch list that is applied to every single airline passenger in the United States. Methods 1 and 2 are questionable enough, since it appears that neither involves a Global Entry-type background check.

And the practical result of methods 2 and 3 has been to overwhelm many of the PreCheck lanes with people who don’t understand the rules, and who unpack bags and take off clothes as if they were in the regular lanes, holding up what used to be a very quick and efficient screening for actual PreCheck members. TSA’s Ross Feinstein has explained that putting amateurs into PreCheck lanes is a “work in progress. Until we started adding more people to these lanes, we couldn’t sustain 10-20 passengers using a PreCheck lane per hour.” But that volume increase was going to occur anyway once TSA got the paid membership program up and running.

In addition, by using BDOs for Managed Inclusion, TSA has come up with something else for these basically useless employees to do. And it seems to have worked. Despite congressional outrage over the scathing GAO report on the ineffectiveness of the Behavior Detection program, Congress failed to reduce the BDO budget in the Omnibus 2014 appropriations bill just enacted.

The good news is that TSA appears close to approving one or more security companies to take applications and check the bona-fides of those seeking access to PreCheck. Each company would use its own algorithm, demonstrated to TSA’s satisfaction to be effective at identifying low-risk travelers. This program, assuming TSA actually signs one or more contracts, would supplement the agency’s fledgling enrollment sites, with the companies using their own approaches to marketing PreCheck to prospective customers.

This article also appears in Robert Poole’s Airport Policy and Security News #97.