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

Mopic/Shutterstock
Mopic/Shutterstock
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.

“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.

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.

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.

Do you have privacy concerns about the TSA's Pre-Check?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Mundane Lustrator

    I don’t think “denying freedom” means what you think it means.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I remember and want the freedom to fly again without gov’t interference and molestation.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    No, the plane ticket is between a private company and the flyer. Precheck is the gov’t attempting to “approve” who can fly by offering a possibility of our privacy and property being less invaded by gov’t employees.

  • BMG4ME

    I don’t think you read what I said. People in the TSA Pre line don’t cower in fear. I long ago stopped being afraid of flying because of terror. Airport security is necessary because it’s proven that people want to destroy planes, but I also believe that as long as there is some sort of token security in place (which is what we have now) then our fate is in G-d’s hands not the people screening us.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I shouldn’t have to pay the GOV’T to “approve me” for the Constitutionally guaranteed right possibility of riding in any transportation medium I choose and can pay for.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Yes, it can be.

  • BMG4ME

    It allows us to get TSA Pre and avoid the “molestation” at the airport that you and others are complaining about.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I see, so to get a job or get a license you need to submit to state, local, or organizational laws
    That has nothing to do with travelling in my own country.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Ok, so you want to control people’s right to travel, to procreate, and to eat.

    Anything else?

  • BMG4ME

    Interesting how so many people are quoting the constitution yet badmouthing our government at the same time. Anyway the government has been involved in flying since way before 9-11, who runs the FAA? Would you want to see them disappear? The way to avoid molestation today is to get TSA Pre. Regardless of what you think of the TSA, if they are offering a workaround that works which it does, and you can qualify, then take it, and then you won’t be subjected to the “molestation”. Otherwise it’s like complaining every day about having to wait at the toll lines for 15 minutes because you don’t want to sign up for EZPass even though you could.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I did read what you said and the point is you “feeling sorry” for others who don’t want to give up our rights to fly. Typically, that opinion comes from people who think the extreme level of security theater and intrusive government actions are needed to “keep us safe” because they are scared of the latest bogeyman.

    YFMV (your fears may vary)

  • Mundane Lustrator

    And how is it good for you or anyone?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You forgot “frequent” as a modifier for “flyer”. :)

    Thanks for the reminder. This is a touchy subject and some of the comments went pretty far afield and some were just downright disrespectful of other people’s opinions. Didn’t flag any though – the moderators are busy enough.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    No, you are incorrect. The FAA hasn’t been mentioned by anyone else here and is beside the point. Precheck isn’t a workaround because you aren’t guaranteed to receive it, but won’t get refunded if rejected. Background checks are unnecessary and intrusive. Even if approved, you may not get the benefit.
    EZPass is getting a little out of hand, but for now one can travel without it and won’t have the gov’t background check you beyond for traffic violations (I suspect). And EZPass is also off topic.

  • technomage1

    One nice aspect of the program is active duty military are allowed to use it with the presentation of an ID card. Since we’re already screened by the government anyway, and are a low risk group, this at least makes sense.

  • rn74

    I do remember what it was like. The reason it’s a problem my friend is because the constitution forbids what they do. Perhaps I’d be more forgiving if they were nicer about it, but they’ve done this to themselves. They could adopt the Israeli model of asking questions, though here we could simply decline to answer.

    Now, say we went back to the Pre-TSA days. If a private security worker touched my wife’s breast or my crouch, I’d be at liberty in law and in conscience to beat the heck out of him. I could also sue the pants off his employer. The worker would be labelled a sex offender. Today, TSA workers across the country do things which should label them a sex offender.

  • Miami510

    It seems to me that beyone boarding an aircraft, any search withoug a warrant or probable cause, regardless of who is doing the searching, is a violation of the 4th Amendment.

  • rwm

    You can consider your money forfeited!

  • rwm

    The airlines. I was referring to the selection process at the airport, when you print your boarding pass and the airline selects the Pre-Check passengers out of the pool of travelers who have been granted Pre-Check privileges (usually people with Global Entry, or Nexus). I was not referring to the selection process to have Pre-check privileges granted to you (the background check). They are 2 different things.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    I think the 2002 security works, if they keep metal wands for metal detector alarms and upgrade a policy for those with medical conditions.

    Shoes on, reasonable liquid amounts – such as drinks , etc….

  • Mark Carrara

    I am a Libertarian and strong privacy advocate. I have no problem with PreCheck. As long as it remains 100% optional. Using PreCheck is optional, no one is forcing anyone to use it. I know I won’t. For that matter flying is also optional. I know I fly a lot less than I used to. I don’t travel any less, I just drive more.

  • BMG4ME

    I think you are taking this all much too seriously. I can’t believe you would sit in line for 15 minutes just because of privacy concerns, and no EZPass is not off topic and just because nobody else has mentioned FAA up to know doesn’t mean it’s not relevant.

  • BMG4ME

    It allows us to save a lot of time and avoid the “molestation” at the airport that you and others are complaining about.

  • BMG4ME

    That’s not typical with the people I know. Usually people feel sorry for others that are experiencing misfortune – in this case the misfortune of having to stand in line and wait to go through a security system that is a token gesture and requires people to do pointless things like removing shoes, computers, coats, jackets and now even belts. It’s even more sad when the people standing in line could apply for a time and dignity saving program called TSA Pre but won’t because they of privacy which to me seems like the bogeyman you refer to.

  • BMG4ME

    You don’t have to pay to go through security unless you choose to pay for TSA Pre.

  • 1amWendy

    Pre-Check is useless for anyone with any type of prosthetic… these otherwise innocent people have “anomalies” which mean full pat-downs (at a minimum), up to strip searches. Keeping light jackets and shoes on is the least of their worries. Go Google women who have had their mastectomy prosthetics searched, and even removed. Oh yes – they are harassed no matter which line they endure.

  • Crissy

    While certainly not the case for everyone… Many people have their fingerprints on file with the government because of work, applications for jobs or permits. I’m sure this is a deal breaker for some, but for many, it’s just another copy.

    As for the rest of the info they are looking for, they’re checking their databases, which means they already have it. It’s not like they’re sending someone to your neighbors house to find out about you.

    As for being denied because you did something stupid when you were younger. It happens, our actions have consequences, even if we did them when we were young and stupid. If you did something that might come up then either don’t apply or stop by an office and ask. You probably won’t get a yes or no answer. But if you get the right person you might a hint as to whether it’s worth it.

  • Crissy

    If you can’t afford the $75 to usually get out of the line, then you probably don’t fly enough for it to be worth it. Or you can’t afford it because you’re flying to much, can’t balance their checkbook, or re-prioritized your money to other places. None of which qualifies under the 14th amendment.

  • FQTVLR

    I have been with pre-check for since the program started in ATL. Occasionally I am sent to regular lines. I am global entry which required a lot more information–most of which the government already had. And my spouse, a naturalized citizen, is also in the trusted traveler and global entry programs. The government already had every detail about my spouse.
    With the exception of fingerprints the government has most of these details on us already. They have photographs if we have any government ID, they have birth dates, marriage dates, information on driving violations, criminal activity and anything we put on social media. People get frequent shopper cards, they sign up for specials, use the GPS feature on phones that allows them to be tracked at all times, and many tell all on Facebook. We voluntarily gave up most of our privacy years ago. And we only scream about it when someone tells us too.

  • rn74

    If you can’t understand that making someone pay more to have their rights violated less (4th amendment) is wrong, then there’s nothing I can do to help.

  • Crissy

    I was arguing the 14th amendment issue, not the 4th. Two different issues with different arguments. If you missed that part of my argument where I clearly stated the 14th amendment then there’s nothing I can do to help.

    While I agree that the government has overstepped the 4th amendment in many ways, lets not pretend there wasn’t airport security before and that flying is a privilege and not a right. I disagree with Nudoscopes and that by opting out you get “extra special” treatment. But going through a magnetometer and taking your laptop out of your carry on so they can check for weapons is not unreasonable, it’s hassle.

    It’s also not unreasonable, if you have the money, to pay extra to avoid hassle and save time. It’s not much different than tipping your bartender extra early in then night so you get better service and faster drinks. It’s worth it to some, but not to others.

  • Mel65

    I must have a higher than average “outrage” threshhold. I just can’t get worked up about this. As a gov. contractor with a high-level security clearance, I’ve undergone so much background investigation, fingerprinting and polygraphing, that I assume everything I do (including typing this) is monitored at all times and all my activities are filed somewhere….But I’d “keep my nose clean” anyway, because that’s who I am so I don’t worry about my fingerprints being on file (also, I really like my job). But, regardless of how you feel about fingerprints, background checks etc… signing up for Pre-Check is still a CHOICE. I don’t get why people are upset by an OPTIONAL enrollment. Do it; don’t do it. Give your information; don’t give it. *Shrug* Much ado about nothing, methinks.

  • rn74

    Then you replied to the wrong person.

    In any event, there was airport security before and it was private. That’s legal. The government doing it isn’t.

    Flying is not a privilege. We are free to travel where we will and frankly once you start limiting the method unless you abandon rights, that’s not freedom. If airplanes existed in 1789, you can better believe it would be specified. That’s a tired argument by those who can’t defend what the government is doing.

    It is unreasonable for reasons already specified. I won’t have my rights violated and I won’t pay so they’ll do it a bit less. If I fly, I know I’ll be arrested because the first time they sexual assault me, I’ll slug the pervert.

    Frankly, let’s start calling them what they are. If you take a job working for the TSA, violating the rights of your fellow Americans daily, and grabbing other people where they shouldn’t be touched, you’re a pervert. You should be labelled a sex offender. They can’t say it’s their job, because following orders is no defense for violating the law.

  • http://thetravelinggiraffe.com/ Crissy

    Umm, no I didn’t.
    I replied to your comment “I think you have a good point about the 14th too. Not everyone has the funds to submit to their PreCheck program.”

  • razr1

    All I can say is, thanks for keeping us safe! Everyone who complains about having to take their shoes off would complain more not knowing how safe their travel would be. The government has more info on you than you think and could get more if needed to with or without your approval.

  • Roscoe

    Upgrades are usually much more than $85.

  • Guest

    good, drive to hawaii next time