TSA’s new Pre-Check programs raises major privacy concerns
By Christopher Elliott, Published: October 3
When the Transportation Security Administration’s Pre-Check formally launches sometime this fall, its trusted-traveler program will already have the enthusiastic endorsement of frequent travelers — and an equally enthusiastic denouncement from privacy advocates.
Pre-Check offers an appealing shortcut past the often long airport security lines. After you pay an enrollment fee and submit to a background check and interview, the TSA promises to treat you like a VIP. You’ll be sent to a preferred line, where you can leave your shoes, light outerwear and belt on, leave your laptop in its case and keep your bag of liquids and gels in your carry-on.
“I can’t say enough about how much I love it,” says Ralph Velasco, a photographer based in Corona del Mar, Calif. “It’s saved me many, many hours. I’d highly recommend it.”
How do Velasco and others know about the benefits of Pre-Check?
Because the agency assigned to protect U.S. transportation systems has slowly rolled out the program in 40 airports since 2011.
Travelers could opt in to Pre-Check through their frequent-flier program or through another government trusted-traveler initiative, such as Global Entry, a similar program that allows travelers to cut the customs line when they return to the United States from overseas.
Velasco, for example, belongs to Global Entry, which is operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But you might think twice before plunking down the $85 that a five-year Pre-Check membership is expected to cost. Privacy advocates and some consumers are uneasy about government trusted-traveler programs like this one. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be approved, and if you aren’t, you may never know why. And Pre-Check status is no guarantee that you can avoid a standard TSA screening, which includes a full-body scan or a so-called “enhanced” pat-down.
“If you sign up, you’ll want to keep your nose clean for the rest of your life,” says Gregory Nojeim, a director at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “Because that’s how long the FBI will keep your fingerprints.”
True, as part of the application process, TSA collects a cache of personal information about you, including your prints. They’re held in a database for 75 years, and the database is queried by the FBI and state and local law enforcement as needed to solve crimes at which fingerprints are lifted from crime scenes, according to Nojeim. The prints may also be used for background checks.
“What started as a criminal database to link arrestees to other crimes is being turned into an all-purpose database of fingerprint identifiers,” Nojeim says.
It isn’t what Pre-Check is now — we don’t really know that yet — but what it could someday become that worries privacy-watchers. In the future, it isn’t too difficult to imagine a faster line for pre-screened train passengers waiting to board. TSA’s roaming Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams already selectively screen Amtrak passengers and attendees at special events such as NFL games and political conventions. It also wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see the program requiring passengers to be pre-approved before they can fly.