Privacy Concerns Swirl Around TSA Expedited Screening Program

The Transportation Security Administration is greatly expanding its expedited airport screening program called Pre-check for millions of passengers, although security and privacy experts continue to raise concerns about the program.

More than 55 million travelers have enjoyed a brisker walk through expedited screening, which includes Pre-check, since the program began in October 2011. Pre-check participants typically get through checkpoints faster by keeping on their shoes and jackets, and leaving laptops and small containers of liquids in their carry-on bags. After starting with frequent fliers, the program is now open to general travelers who can pass a background check.

TSA Administrator John Pistole's goal is to move half of all passengers through expedited screening, which also covers young and old travelers and the military, by the end of the year.

"TSA Pre-check is enabling us to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to transportation security, as we look for more opportunities to provide the most effective security in the most efficient way," Pistole said in opening a Pre-check application center last month at Washington's Dulles airport.

One complaint is when the uninitiated are invited into Pre-check lanes, the pace slows because they are unfamiliar with the routine.

TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein said the agency is expanding the number of Pre-check lanes and hours of operation at airports "in order to enable more passengers across the country to experience expedited screening in the most efficient way possible."

As the program grows, security experts question whether it is thorough enough. And privacy experts warn against giving up personal information in exchange for a faster trip through the checkpoint.

"Either the assessments will be based on a laughable amount of information about people and will only be providing an illusion of security, or they will be so intrusive that the government will basically be doing background checks on everyone who flies," said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union's speech, privacy and technology project.

Participants must provide a photograph and fingerprints, so applicants must apply in person, but a reservation can be made on TSA's website. Applicants must bring documentation, such as a birth certificate or passport.

TSA already checked passenger names against a government watch list to see whether the traveler was prohibited from flying or merited extra scrutiny. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also keeps a list that TSA checks of people not permitted on aircraft because of health concerns.

Under the Pre-check application, TSA will also check applicants against unspecified law enforcement, immigration and intelligence databases, with the FBI checking criminal history records using the fingerprints, according to TSA's privacy statement about the program.

TSA retains "sole discretion" in determining who is eligible for Pre-check. Criminal convictions, not-guilty pleas by reason of insanity and being caught with a loaded firearm at an airport checkpoint could each disqualify an applicant.

Concerns about Pre-check focus on the balance of allowing travelers while blocking terrorists. For example, Pre-check lanes have metal detectors, while full-body scanners for the general population aim to spot non-metallic underwear bombs.

TSA officials note there are other layers of security, some of which are unseen. But security and privacy experts wonder both whether the Pre-check investigation is thorough enough or too invasive for the traveling public.

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