Checking Out Before You Check In

By Dani Lampitt

Since the attacks in New York City on September 11th, airport security has taken a big leap to ensure public safety. The “Transportation Security Administration” has expanded their search on passengers even before they arrive at the airport. The T.S.A. does full background checks on suspicious passengers through government databases looking at anything from car registration to travel itineraries. The main goal is to raise airport security, but passengers often perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Previously, this high level of security was only for passengers who posed threat entering the United States, but now T.S.A has access to government records for domestic flights as well.

These new measures go way past previous background checks, which have been conducted by the government for years. The screening used to be Secure Flight was the previous screening system that matched the passengers name, date of birth, and gender to terrorist watch lists. Now, they are using the passengers’ passport number, which used to be only for border checks. They are also using other identifiers to access databases through the Department of Homeland Security. The T.S.A. has said they look at this information to see if a higher level of screening at check-in is necessary.

The agency is trying to have more passengers sign up for their “trusted traveler” program, called PreCheck. This allows frequent fliers to pass through security without any screening after submitting their fingerprints and undergoing criminal background checks.

The T.S.A. hopes that by pre-screening it can lighten security lines by 25% passengers wouldn’t have to take their coats or shoes off and can leave laptop computers in their bags. They hope to lighten passenger screening by the end of 2014. But, travelers who are in the higher-risk categories will be subjected to repeated searches. One passenger, Abdulla Darrat was flagged for extra security checks all eight times flying since June. After trying to check-in online, he receives his boarding pass marked with “SSSS”. This indicates to security he must go through enhanced screening. His name is also written down on a list that is kept at the podium where an agent checks the boarding passes before going through security. They pat Mr. Darratt down multiple times and go through every single article he has in his carry on bag. At the checkpoint search, they even swab his bag to check for explosive residue. After all of that, he is checked at the gate before being allowed to go onto the plane. Abdulla assumes that the extra scrutiny is because he has flown to Libya to visit family members. It also adds suspicion to fellow passengers because they might look at him differently. However, the airline industry supports PreCheck because it leaves time to thoroughly check the higher-risk passengers.

The center of this effort is the Automated Targeting System which is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. The data in the Automated Targeting System is used to decide who is placed on the “no-fly” list and the selectee list, an unknown number of travelers who are selected to go through more in-depth screening.

They have also created a list through the Department of Homeland Security for travelers who feel like they have been wrongfully placed on a list. This is called the Travelers Redress Inquiry Program. Passengers can be added to the list if they feel like they have been put on a higher-risk list which is not necessary.

Most people do not understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how it can be used for other purposes.  A lot of private companies can access your information without you knowing.