War/Security

Airport security and the fast lane to hell

I’ve been hearing some ads lately on sports talk for the Fly Clear program, which allows you to speed through airport security. Seductive message, that – those security lines are a bitch, even now that the TSA has apparently concluded that I’m not a terrorist. It would damned sure be nice to be able to scoot through a special line and be on my way, especially when I’m running late.

Of course, it’s not an uncomplicated issue, is it? These days convenience comes at a price, and the price here is almost certainly even more loss of privacy. So let’s see – how does this work? Ah, here it is, in Step 2:

A Clear attendant will verify two pieces of approved government-issued identification, capture images of your irises and fingerprints, and take your photograph.

They want my biometrics. A retinal scan. How very Minority Report.

Up until a few months ago I’d never even been fingerprinted, but now the state of Colorado requires that everybody be printed when they get their driver’s licenses. I sat there and contemplated walking out – I tried to figure out how to end-run the system, but I couldn’t come up with anything. So now I’m in the system, no doubt searchable by every official agency in the world. I try not to be unduly paranoid, but I tend not to trust large organizations, governmental, corporate or otherwise.

Ink-stained fingers crossed, I guess.

But this really isn’t the worst of it, by far. The fact is that this system not only asks us to trade privacy for convenience, it also opens the door to potential security breaches. I’m no expert on the subject, but Bruce Schneier damned sure is, and what he has to say is instructive.

Background checks are based on the dangerous myth that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we could identify everyone. Unfortunately, there isn’t any terrorist profile that prescreening can uncover. Timothy McVeigh could probably have gotten one of these cards. So could have Eric Rudolph, the pipe bomber at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. There isn’t even a good list of known terrorists to check people against; the government list used by the airlines has been the butt of jokes for years.

And have we forgotten how prevalent identity theft is these days? If you think having a criminal impersonating you to your bank is bad, wait until they start impersonating you to the Transportation Security Administration.

The truth is that whenever you create two paths through security — a high-security path and a low-security path — you have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path. It may be counterintuitive, but we are all safer if the people chosen for more thorough screening are truly random and not based on an error-filled database or a cursory background check.

I think of Clear as a $100 service that tells terrorists if the F.B.I. is on to them or not. Why in the world would we provide terrorists with this ability?

Schneier argues that this program is half-smart, half-stupid, and that the program’s added efficiency is a plus.

Clear cardholders are not scrutinized less when they go through checkpoints, they’re scrutinized more efficiently. So why not get rid of the background checks altogether? We should all be able to walk into the airport, pay $10, and use the Clear lanes when it’s worth it to us.

He’s apparently less paranoid about the biometrics than I am, and I’ll take that to mean I’m probably too paranoid.

Still, I’m trying to be more conscious these days of when I’m being asked to broaden my data shadow and why. I suspect the most effective path to tyranny is chock full of conveniences and gracious amenities.

5 replies »

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  2. What I find interesting as a former member of the TSA as well as someone who has worked for the company that does the ID checks at DIA is that security is NOT being reduced. The baggage is still going through the X-ray and the passenger is still going thought the magnetometer. All this does is formalize what already happens for frequent fliers who are able to use the express line because of their frequent flier status and actually adds the background check so the security requirements are actually enhanced.The only other “enhancement” I see is the added concierge service helping people get their stuff set for the lines. I know when the TSA first started they had more people per line and were offering this for all passengers and it significantly reduced the amount of time it took most people to get through the lines.

  3. Russ, I find that article actually amusing in the fact that most airline personnel have the option to enter through the airports employee entrances. Most of these do have metal detectors but they only require randomly selected personnel to go through them, all others go right on in as being properly badged and not being required to be screened.