Why the "Registered Traveler" Program Will Not Make Airline Passengers Any Safer

August 17, 2006

In the wake of the British Government's arrests of suspects in a terrorism plot against airliners — and the long lines that have been caused by Homeland Security's sudden imposition of new regulations limiting carry-on liquids and electronics — proponents are renewing calls for the program known as "Registered Traveler." But if anything, the recent UK terror plot shows why Registered Traveler should not be implemented. Americans can be both safe and free. We don't serve our values by giving in to calls from bureaucrats and politicians who use the "threat of the day" to push for programs that violate our values.

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INEFFECTIVE

  • It is far from clear that a Registered Traveler program would have stopped the alleged UK plot. The program would do nothing to stop individuals from boarding airliners who are not suspected by the authorities of terrorist intent. In fact, the UK plot confirms the flaws with identity-based security like Registered Traveler: from reports so far, the UK plot was foiled by old-fashioned police work, not by any scheme based on mass background checks, or trying to sort passengers into "trusted" and "untrusted" categories.
  • This program would create a "get out of security free card." As security experts have pointed out,[1] this program actually creates a giant new security hole. Once you create a channel for people to get on airplanes without going through the normal security requirements, terrorists will inevitably seek to exploit that channel.
  • The program would be vulnerable to terrorist ‘testing.' A group of conspirators could easily apply for the program, and then wait to see which among them are allowed in. Once a sufficient number has been admitted, an attack could be carried out by those individuals.
  • The program is a diversion. Trusted Traveler is symptom of a disturbing pattern by the current government of concentrating on showy airline security initiatives to the detriment of other, non-aviation security priorities, from nuclear material to cargo to urban disaster preparedness.[2] Ultimately our nation's security funds are limited, and every dollar that goes into a flawed program like Registered Traveler is a dollar diverted from other priorities that could do much more to protect lives.

IMPRACTICAL AND/OR UNFAIR

  • Many knotty questions about this program are unanswered. Some people find the registered traveler idea appealing at first blush, but on closer examination numerous knotty questions arise:
    • If the program is restricted, who will be kept out? If this program truly saves significant time at airport gates, everyone will want to participate. But, government spokespersons have stated that not just anyone will be allowed to join. ("Just because John Q. Public wants to join the Registered Traveler program doesn't mean he'll be able to participate," — Nico Melendez, TSA spokesman[3])
    • What about the elderly, those with low incomes or young people who fly only occasionally? Many of them may not be able to afford the cost of joining the program, or may not have a credit or other track record that would qualify them for trusted traveler status, and will find themselves forced into an "untrusted traveler" lane. People who can't afford the program should not be treated like suspects.
    • What will the criteria be? What quality of background checks are being conducted on participants for the reported fees of $80-100? Will such checks really provide security? How is the information in such checks to be used to make decisions? What kind of background checks would have eliminated an "all-American" military veteran like Timothy McVeigh — or legal immigrants with clean records like many of the terrorists of September 11?
    • What due process procedures will be put in place? Will those who are rejected be informed of the reason why, and what information that decision is based upon? And, will they have a right to appeal that decision and the validity of any false reports or information it is based upon?

DANGEROUS

  • How will it expand over time? Possession of a "Trusted Traveler" document will inevitably be used as a cheap shortcut to a background check by employers or others. That kind of piggybacking on this program will pressure people to join it — and sharpen the consequences for those who are kept out.
  • Government ratings of citizens are alien to democracy. These are the kinds of dilemmas that arise when you put the government in the position of ranking the governed depending on how "trustworthy" they supposedly are. We should not go down that road, because rating citizens into different official categories will inevitably spread, hurt the lives of innocent people, and is anathema in a democracy.

UNNECESSARY

  • The program is not needed. Most people, most of the time, in most airports, do not find that security lines are terribly onerous. The exception is under unusual circumstances such as during the recent rule changes, or when a terminal has to be cleared out — but it is not clear that Registered Traveler would help in such circumstances.
  • Airports and airlines are against it. The Air Transport Association, the primary trade association for U.S. air carriers, has asked the airports not to participate in this program because it perceives it would be a waste of resources that would not bring benefits commensurate with its costs.[4] And while some airports are signing up, many of the largest are spurning the program, including those in Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, and Boston's Logan Airport, which was the departure point for the two jets that crashed into the Trade Center on 9/11. "I don't think we should create a longer wait in line for the majority of people to provide a shorter line for a few people," the Las Vegas airport director told USA Today, while an airport spokesman in San Francisco said simply, "We don't see a huge benefit."[5]

SOLUTIONS

  • More effective security needs must be met. It makes no sense to spend money on Registered Traveler when many other, more effective security needs are not being met, or could be bolstered. They include:
    • Old-fashioned police work. No identity-system filter or technological fix can replace old-fashioned investigative police and intelligence work.
    • Particle sniffers. Gateways that puff air on individuals in a search for particles of explosives are a non-invasive tool for identifying explosives, which can be disguised not just as an everyday liquid but as nearly any plastic item. The targeted use of the "puffer machines" at airports to detect explosives makes security and civil liberties sense. These are already being deployed but are still comparatively rare.
    • Improved management and training of screeners. Test after test has found that it is still all too easy to smuggle contraband through airport security. There are no quick technical fixes for this, but improvements here will do far more good than Registered Traveler.[6]
    • Fix other gaping security holes. For example, TSA does not screen 100% of checked baggage for explosives.[7] Thousands of airport employees can still access secure areas of airports with little screening. And a fifth of all air cargo is carried on passenger planes, and is not systematically screened.[8]

THE BOTTOM LINE:

  • Costs not worth the benefits. It is a false hope that security can be improved by creating an identity-based rating system based on intrusive but ultimately ineffective probes into travelers' lives. Instead of going down that road, with all its ugly implications for American life, we should simply focus on making sure that no passengers, whatever their profile, bring weapons or explosives onto our jetliners.

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