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TSA rolls out airport security program for 'trusted' travelers

Lena GroegerProPublica
When the machine detects something on a passenger, an anomaly, it shows the location as a yellow box.
Stephen Nowers photo
A TSA body scanner displays an anomaly detected during a demonstration for the Alaska media at the Anchorage airport on Friday, December 9.
Stephen Nowers photo
Alaskans' Freedom to Travel USA served anti-TSA cookies at the Ted Stevens International Airport on Friday, December 9.
Stephen Nowers photo
Anchorage airport manager John Parrott speaks to members of the media during a press conference introducing the airport's new security scanners.
Stephen Nowers photo
Members of the media watch a TSA security demonstration at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Media on Friday, December 9. The airport recently received new security scanners.
Stephen Nowers photo
TSA employees, both in uniform and plain clothed, demonstrate the agency's new security machines at the Anchorage airport on Friday, December 9.
Stephen Nowers photo
The Transportation Safety Administration conducted a demonstration for their newly installed body scanning machines at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Friday, December 9.
Stephen Nowers photo

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TSA body scanners continue their steady advance into our nation’s airports, but another agency security initiative begins well before travelers ever reach a checkpoint. PreCheck, the TSA’s nascent pre-screening program, allows some pre-approved frequent travelers to make it from check in to take off in record time –if they give the government access to lots of information in return.

The TSA began rolling out the program in October, working with Delta and American Airlines to invite certain flyers to apply. After gathering information about their flying habits, payment types and other personal information (TSA won’t provide all the specifics), some of those flyers became eligible for the expedited screening.

This specially selected bunch will experience all sorts of perks at the airport: they get to keep their belts and shoes on, leave their laptops and zip-locked liquids in their carry-on bag, and even walk through their own dedicated security lane (red carpet not included). Think airport E-ZPass, only with a background check.

According to the head of the TSA, the initiative gets travelers “we know and trust the most” through security faster, freeing up time to monitor unknown or riskier travelers (including, of course, people on terrorist watch lists).

Right now PreCheck has about 85,000 members and is only used at a few airports: Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Miami and recently Las Vegas. The TSA plans to expand the program to Los Angeles and Minneapolis St-Paul in the next few months. Agency officials also hope to extend the expedited screening to some airline crew members and members of the military.

If some of this sounds familiar, it might be because the TSA has a history of failed attempts at creating a trusted traveler program. Back in 2005, they started a pilot program called Registered Traveler (RT), which had many of the same goals as PreCheck: biographical details and a fee in exchange for a shorter wait and less hassle at security. After starting and stopping in various iterations, the TSA shut down the program. Clear, one of the largest of the several vendors who participated in the national pilot, collapsed in 2009 (but may be making a comeback).

Several countries have similar sorts of programs for border security in place now. Privium, a program at Schipol airport in Amsterdam, gives frequent flyers deemed to be low risk “hold-up free travel” complete with a club card, private lounge and valet parking. It costs up to 189 euros a year. Nexus is a Canadian program that aims to make crossing our northern border a little easier for pre-approved travelers. GlobalEntry is designed to speed up the customs process for background-checked international travelers returning to the United States.

So while TSA has removed some information from its scanned images, it seems to be submitting travelers to other, perhaps equally intrusive, forms of personal scrutiny. We’ll see which proves to be less controversial.

This report was originally published by ProPublica and is republished here with permission.