Private security firms are jostling for position on a potentially high-dollar government contract: a chance to conduct background checks on thousands of frequent fliers.
Industry sources say at least two well-known firms in the security field have raised their hands so far: The Chertoff Group, led by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and a rival firm called Clear.
While the Transportation Security Administration isn't yet entertaining serious proposals, the agency is exploring the idea of putting a third party in charge of conducting background checks on passengers who apply for the agency's expedited-screening program, known as PreCheck. It's part of a broader push by the TSA to allow low-risk travelers to zip through airport checkpoints, speed up security lines and free agents to spot potential terrorist threats.
Under the current system, TSA screens PreCheck applicants.
So far, TSA officials are still analyzing so-called white papers from private firms that responded to a request for information on background screening. Those submissions will provide TSA with market research and other data to help it determine whether to move toward privatization.
During the next few weeks, TSA will decide whether to take the next step and issue a request for proposal.
Agency officials would not say at this point how many firms responded to the RFI or disclose who they were. A Chertoff Group spokeswoman said it is company policy not to comment on any potential bids or contracts.
But Clear officials confirmed that their firm submitted a white paper, noting that the New York-based biometric identification security firm is already up and running in a handful of airports around the country.
"TSA should be applauded for recognizing the value that the private sector can bring to this issue," said one security industry insider. "The private sector offers scaling potential and innovation that can support the work DHS and TSA are doing to strengthen security and enhance the experience for the traveling public."
TSA's efforts to expand PreCheck and move toward a more risk-based approach to fighting terrorism has plenty of fans on Capitol Hill -- no surprise given how much time lawmakers spend in the air each week. But several warned about the risks of putting secure, sensitive information about travelers in the hands of a private party.
In 2009, for example, Clear was shut down after its owner, Verified Identity Pass, filed for bankruptcy, raising questions from lawmakers about what would happen to the personal information collected from Clear members. A year later, a group led by Caryn Seidman-Becker purchased the firm's assets and relaunched Clear. The company's users are able to use shorter, dedicated lines when they go through airport security checkpoints.
"Generally, having a competitive option out there is a good thing," said Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees TSA. "As long as you've got a national employee and a national secured system, that's one way to hold on to that information. But once you start sending that information out there generally, I do think you have to be thoughtful about it."
In interviews this week, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee -- Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) -- expressed doubts over how feasible it would be to bring in a private company to do the background checks.
"When it gets into the law enforcement realm, sometimes it's hard to contract that kind of stuff out," McCaul said.
One question the chairman would have for a private contractor: "Whether they would have access to the databases that law enforcement has. I'd rather have background checks being done by law enforcement."
But expanding the PreCheck program has been a pet project of McCaul, who has pressured TSA Administrator John Pistole to roll out the program as fast as he can across the country.
That effort now appears to be in overdrive. The expedited screening program was at 25 U.S. airports in September, before McCaul was elected chairman. It's now available at 40 airports and is being integrated into international travel.
PreCheck passengers enjoy several benefits: They can bypass long security lines; don't have to remove their shoes, belts and light jackets; and can keep their laptops and small toiletries in their bags as they pass through checkpoints.
"The goal is to increase the population of users and give more people the opportunity to take advantage of PreCheck," said TSA spokesman David Castelveter.
Thompson agreed that PreCheck is a useful tool in making the nation's security apparatus more efficient and flier-friendly.
"If you vet the people, if you use it as a method of speeding up the throughput, it works if people are willing to submit background data for a check," Thompson said.
But both Thompson and McCaul took aim at Clear's private screening service, which relies on fingerprint and iris scan technology to speed passengers through security. The company's service still hasn't caught on like PreCheck and is available only at airports in Dallas, San Francisco, Orlando, Denver and Westchester, N.Y.
And Thompson said Clear's burden of payment is on the passenger -- not on the airline, like PreCheck. The standard annual price for Clear is $179, and Thompson compared that sort of pricing to a "diamond or platinum line" of credit card.
Privatizing background checks for PreCheck also would shift the cost from the airlines to the passengers.
"Right now, there's no cost associated with PreCheck. So in the past when we had a similar private program, you had to pay, so it was those who had the means that did," Thompson said. He added that "privacy and civil liberties concerns" were "one of the reasons that program was not successful."
Of course, there are also indirect costs to joining PreCheck: Many members who joined through Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program for international travelers had to pay at least a $100 fee. And Clear's website states that there are a variety of membership plans. For example, children of members can use Clear lanes for free.
Thompson has heard that TSA is looking at contracting out some of its PreCheck research, but the agency has not briefed him on any specifics. McCaul, too, has only heard talk -- and until Pistole brings him more specifics, he's concentrated on a different kind of privatization: the frontline security screeners.
"What we're looking at more is private contractors doing screening," McCaul said.
Using a third party to do background checks for those that are in the business of flying isn't unheard of. The American Association of Airport Executives has partnered with TSA on the Transportation Security Clearinghouse, for example, which does background checks on aviation workers who use secure areas of airports. It's a massive undertaking and TSC says it has done more than a million criminal background checks and a quarter-million threat assessments. That partnership suggests outsourcing some functions of aviation security is doable if the political will is there.
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