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Airport security measures take flight

by Matthew Kredell
John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, lectures at a USC CREATE event.
Photo: John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, lectures at a USC CREATE event.

John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), discussed plans for expanding prescreening that would allow trusted travelers a more streamlined process through airport security during an event hosted by the USC National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) on June 6.

Pistole is the fifth administrator of the TSA since 2001, when it was created in response to the 9/11 attacks. For a decade, the TSA focused on a one-size-fits-all concept in which everyone was considered a potential threat. But in the vast majority of cases, fliers are simply people looking to get from one place to another as quickly and easily as possible.

The TSA is transitioning to a new method in which people can be prescreened by sharing some basic information about themselves, including travel history, in order to go through dedicated security lanes with expedited physical screening. The lanes have a metal detector rather than a full-body imaging machine, and passengers are allowed to keep on their shoes, belt and light jacket, and leave their laptop in the bag. This improves the experience of the traveler while allowing the TSA to focus more attention on finding actual terrorists.

“Our approach is to manage or mitigate risk informed by the intelligence we have about what terrorists are doing, how they’re trying to do it and where they’re trying to do it, and then to take appropriate steps that balance the security and privacy with civil liberty issues that we fight wars about here,” Pistole said.

This approach is very similar to the work currently being done at CREATE, an interdisciplinary national research center based at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“His philosophy of using risk-based security and intelligence-driven processes really fits into what CREATE is doing,” said Stephen Hora, CREATE director and research professor at USC Price and USC Viterbi. “I see his vision and our mission lining up very well.”

TSA PreCheck is currently being offered in 40 airports, including three lanes at Los Angeles International Airport, through the elite flier programs at six airlines. The 10-millionth passenger went through TSA PreCheck in May. There are 450 airports in the United States with an average of about 630 million passengers a year. Pistole said the goal is for 25 percent of the entire traveling public to go through some form of expedited physical screening by the end of the year and for the rate to increase to 50 percent by the end of 2014.

To reach those numbers, the TSA plans to offer an online sign-up form for the program through its website starting in the fall. Enrollment will consist of answering questions and paying $85 for a five-year license.

“Anybody will be able to go to the TSA website and sign up with basic information that we know from intelligence are good indicators that they are or aren’t a terrorist,” Pistole said. “Obviously, 99.999 percent of people won’t match with those criteria.”

Pistole added: “We want to differentiate between people based on what they voluntarily share with us. If somebody doesn’t care to share, that’s fine. They’ll get the regular treatment.”

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has not been a single terrorist attempt originating from a U.S. airport. However, that doesn’t mean terrorists have given up on the idea and wouldn’t try to exploit the PreCheck program, which is why the TSA will keep an element of randomization and unpredictability. Every so often, passengers in the expedited lanes will be told to go through regular screening so that terrorists can’t beat the system.

In summing up his ultimate concern, Pistole noted, “The terrorists’ highest goal would be to get a terrorist on a plane in the U.S., to get through all the layers of security we have and basically thumb their noses at us and say, ‘For all the billions of dollars that you have spent here in the U.S., you still can’t stop us.’ ”

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