TSA’s new Pre-Check programs raises major privacy concerns

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By Christopher Elliott

When the TSA 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.

Considering Pre-Check program: benefits and concerns

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.”

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What you should know

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.

Unfairness in trusted-traveler programs

“I would not apply for one of these trusted-traveler programs, which in the past have involved giving the government more information or authorizing it to get more information about me,” says Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates on privacy issues.

The concept of a line for elite travelers who can afford to pay a fee also strikes many observers as unfair, if not un-American. Critics say that, in the interests of safety, all travelers should be given the same careful screening whenever they fly.

Another problem with trusted-traveler programs: You might not be approved, and even if you are, you could lose your preferred status at any time. Consider what happened to Melanie Hansen when she recently applied for the Global Entry program. A few weeks after her interview, she received a form letter rejecting her.

The uncertainty of trusted-traveler program

Turns out that when she and her husband were leaving Hong Kong 24 years ago, they failed to declare two valuable watches that they’d purchased in China. “I admitted not properly declaring items on my application for Global Entry, and the approximate date of that incident,” says Hansen, a writer who lives in Columbia, S.C. “When the Global Entry representative brought it up, I could only say that I was young and stupid.”

Actually, Hansen is fortunate. Many Americans who apply for a trusted-traveler program never find out why they were turned down and are left to speculate. Appeals to the government are often answered with vague responses. The Customs and Border Protection Web site notes that having a criminal record or a past violation of CBP laws, regulations or policies “may render you ineligible” for participation in all trusted-traveler programs, but if you appeal, the exact reasons for denial or suspension are not always given. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Challenges of Pre-Check membership

Program membership can also be terminated at any time, leaving travelers wondering what they did to get themselves expelled but never knowing the answer. But a TSA spokesman said Pre-Check is run by TSA and will have its own appeals process in place, which will allow passengers to ask for a second look if they’re rejected.

Assuming that you’re green-lighted for Pre-Check and you don’t do anything that gets you kicked out of the program, you still might be sent to the slow lane. Even passengers with a Pre-Check designation on their boarding passes aren’t guaranteed expedited screening, according to the TSA, which vows to continue incorporating what it calls “random, unpredictable screening measures” into airport security.

The early enthusiasm for Pre-Check may be a product of the relief air travelers feel when they’re exempted from the TSA’s normal screening methods, which some have criticized for being invasive and unconstitutional. But as the program expands and more stories begin to emerge of passengers being rejected or removed from this pricey trusted-traveler program, the tide of public opinion could turn.

By then it might be too late. The government seems determined to know more about you before you fly, whether you’re willing to pay for the privilege or not. In a little-noticed proposal, the Department of Homeland Security says that it plans to upgrade to its Secure Flight system, which pre-screens all passengers. The results would be indicated on your boarding pass, with some observers speculating that the TSA would use a “green” designation for trusted travelers, “yellow” for non-members of Pre-Check and “red” for probable security risks.

TSA says that the new Secure Flight would be used to send non-members who are tagged as low-risk passengers through the Pre-Check lines, even if they aren’t members.

Travelers have until Oct. 10 to leave comments on the government’s Regulations.gov Web site. It may be your last, best chance to let the government know what you think of its plan to pre-approve you for travel.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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