The Corner

Are Americans Smart Enough to Understand Airport Security?

I seriously doubt that my friend Paul Rosenzweig, a former Bush-administration DHS official, meant to suggest that Americans don’t fully understand the trade-off between privacy and security in air travel when he told Politico that, in reacting to stories of TSA overreaching (or underreaching, depending upon your perspective), Americans “haven’t considered the other side of the equation.” 

As Paul knows, “the other side of the equation” is not that simple. One criticism of the DHS/TSA security protocols is simply that scanning and pat-downs conducted by what are not necessarily the most highly competent of government employees is not the best approach to security. But to have better screening, we need better information — and therein lies the absurdity of our current regime.

Privacy advocates and their allies on Capitol Hill (on both sides of the aisle) have kept the government from looking for patterns in air travelers’ biographies, comings and goings, and the like — what many refer to as “profiling.” But with a little more information on all passengers, and more careful screening of those who raise red flags, the TSA shakedown of pregnant women, small children, and nuns in habit could be made less necessary or at least less intrusive.   

Americans are perfectly willing to tolerate a reasonable balance. Physical security is an appropriate part of the equation, and a lot of it has been accepted by the public: Shoes and jackets are removed, ID is shown, etc. But there is a point at which we need to ask whether or not there’s a better approach, and it’s reasonable for Americans to raise that question now. 

No approach is without its trade-offs: Better data can lead to fewer passengers feeling like they’ve been physically assaulted on their way to Disney World, but some will no doubt feel that government control of such information is also a frightening prospect. Still, I think most travelers would be more willing to tolerate a question or two about where they are headed than a full-scale junk-touching by a TSA employee.

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