Let's Talk About RBS. And Pre-Check. And Opt-Out. Again.

On the face of it, TSA’s Risk Based Security (RBS) seems like a pretty good idea: use your limited resources to address real identifiable risk, which in the physical security world is most often defined as threat-times-vulnerability. There are certainly plenty of airport vulnerabilities to go around, but the operative question is vulnerable to what?  Defining the threat is always a fast-moving, fast-morphing target which is a continuing challenge for static policies and procedures using static technologies.  

Pre-check is a child of RBS: use the U.S.’ massive intelligence capabilities to check up on you, your family and friends, and if you’re not a terrorist threat, you get a quick once-over instead of the full screening process, and you’re good to go.  Again, a reasonable idea, assuming the selection criteria make security sense and are applied similarly sensibly.  And there’s the rub.

This discussion could fill volumes, but I’ll summarize as best I can in this small space thusly: maybe good, maybe not so good.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m in favor of new ideas, change, anything that improves security. TSA changes technologies regularly; sometimes with highly effective upgrades (that’s good), and sometimes with stuff that should never have left the box. Recall the now-decommissioned puffer, which had enormously high false alarm rates by hitting on dirt and dust – who knew that airports were dirty and dusty -- and the continuing kerfuffle over privacy and “naked” images, which apparently went unnoticed in the lab.

Last time I checked, Pre-check is only active at about 8 percent of U.S. airports – not exactly universal, but admittedly still in start-up mode and mainly at large heavily traveled locations.  To beef up Pre-check’s too-restrictive membership usage, TSA has begun testing something called “managed inclusion” at a few airports, combining K-9 bomb dogs and the much maligned behavior detection process to identify random BDO selectees in the queue prior to normal security screening. If the dogs don’t hit, the person can use the Pre-check lane.

In the opinion of many, me included, this is just seeking to justify the expanding BDO program for which, according to a recent Reason Report, there is a “total absence of scientific justification ... or thoughtful risk analysis.”  The Reason Report notes that if the BDO interviews were equally as effective as a full polygraph test, and conducted under the very best of conditions (i.e., not standing in the boarding line with all those other scruffy-looking travelers), and thus able to catch 100 percent of terrorists, the chance of nabbing a terrorist is one in 115 million.  That’s roughly 300,000 A-380’s filled to the gills - for each selectee.  Not particularly cost-effective. I suspect we could improve our chances by just having the BDO do rock-paper-scissors with every sixth passenger; losers get full the full monte.

Which brings me to another more personally aggravating issue described at some length in an article by travel blogger Chris Elliott: TSA screeners apparently hate passengers who opt out of AIT screening.  Opting out is always your right at every U.S. airport, with no explanation required.  The agent then has to suit up with the rubber gloves, get pulled off-station, causing a full agent re-shuffle, and then explain the process for the umpteenth time to an already disagreeable person who knows his rights and is almost certain to object to some element of the pat-down, which often then involves a supervisor and perhaps a cop, because TSA agents have no law enforcement authority.  They will employ intimidation, verbal harassment, humiliation and retaliatory waiting time – just because they can, and they know you don’t want to miss your flight. 

 While all this was before his time, the author John Steinbeck understood the concept:  “We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it."