Airport Security Starts Long Before You Check In

Preparing to fly back home to Virginia from the Clearwater, FL airport, I told a TSA agent I was an ‘opt-out’ for the full body scanner. Standing in stocking feet, with my belongings spread about on the baggage scanner, I waited for 10 minutes until a woman came out of the back to do a full body pat-down. As others went through the scanner and collected their belongings, I tried to keep an eye on my stuff from behind the gate. It’s an experience many flyers experience day-in, day out, but for me, it was invasive, uncalled for (what crime had I committed?) and humiliating.

Coming from a small town, a full body scanner was a new experience for me; so was a pat-down.

Standing there for the whole airport to watch, I felt like a criminal as I stood legs apart with a TSA agent rubbing (who ever thought of calling it a ‘pat-down’?!) me down from head to toe, hand swabs, pulling my waistband about and running her hand inside a few inches (seriously?!). For all that, the TSA agent missed a wad of cash in my pocket that I didn’t know was there. Just how effective is the TSA’s security?

Am I alone or is America okay with invasive searches like this?

According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, over 640 million passengers travel by air each year. Most travelers have grown accustomed to present-day airport and flying regulations, but airport security was far less stringent prior to the 1960s and 70s, when hijackings and bombings became somewhat prevalent and a major security threat.

Airport Security Officer 1970

Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

A Brief History of Air Security
Such incidents caused the U.S. government to place armed guards on select commercial planes, but only when requested by either the airline itself or the FBI.  A 2011 L.A. Times piece highlighting the history of airline safety also points out that in 1969 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) developed a hijacker psychological profile that was to be used in conjunction with airport metal detectors to screen travelers and their belongings.

Security Guard, September 1970 (Image courtesy Orange County Archives)
Various air travel safety programs and types of passenger screenings were created in the years that followed, but airport security changed forever on September 11, 2001, when 19 al Qaeda terrorists seized four domestic planes. Two of those planes were flown into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia. Also aimed at the Washington, D.C. area, the fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3000 people died in the 9/11 attacks.

TSA and Passenger Screenings
A month after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act into law, restructuring and refocusing the airport security efforts and creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the process. The TSA’s goals are to prevent attacks on airports or planes and to prevent accidents and fatalities due to the transport of forbidden materials, all while ensuring the safety and security of all passengers.

Barriers like fences and walls are an airport’s first line of defense, but confirming travelers’ identities is one of the most important non-physical security measures. Passengers are required to present an official photo ID or passport upon check-in and again before boarding their planes to ensure that their IDs match the names that appears on their airline tickets.

Airport Security LinesAir travelers must also remove their shoes and jackets, empty their pockets and allow their carry-on luggage and personal items to be scanned and rifled through before walking through metal detectors. These requirements frequently cause long lines and delays during peak travel times. Select passengers are also pulled aside by TSA officers for further screenings and pat-downs, activities that have caused frenzies among passengers, TSA critics and the media’s attention.

In conservative circles, it has especially garnered attention with many saying the Federal government has stepped over its bounds and that such measures are unconstitutional. They cite the 4th Amendment, which reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

airport scanningNew Pre-Screening Programs
Air passengers, most likely those who are frequent flyers, may now voluntarily participate in a new TSA program known as TSA Pre. According to CNN, eligible participants who have been approved by the TSA or who have provided their fingerprints and paid to have their identities verified, may then be able to use dedicated TSA pre-lanes at participating airports, keeping their shoes and jackets on and their belongings a bit more intact, saving travel time.

Other travelers, though, are being pre-screened without their consent.  Multiple news outlets report that the TSA is now pre-screening air passengers using government, as well as private databases. This data may be gathered from past air travel schedules, property records, car registrations, tax IDs, employment histories, criminal or arrest records and other types of “personal” information.

How far will the government go to invade your privacy, just because you wish to travel?

A pre-screening program known as Secure Flight launched in 2009 to compare passenger names, gender and birth dates to a terrorist watch list, but these newer pre-screening methods appear to be digging deeper. While some may agree with the tactics in the name of air “safety,” critics—such as the Identity Project and Electronic Privacy Information Center feel the searches are too intrusive.

A statement issued by the TSA claims that these pre-screening assessments will be used for “higher risk passengers,” reports the International Business Times, but what does that mean? It’s also highly likely that most people have no idea that their personal information may be accessed as soon as they purchase an airline ticket.

While this may sound unfair, these practices are most likely not going away anytime soon. What is the best thing you can do if you are concerned with these tactics? Many people must fly for business trips and the like; for the rest of us, take a road trip and enjoy your privacy and personal security!

Carrie Thompson writes for a security company in Arizona, Phoenix LockMaster, just 6 miles from the security line at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

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