The Blog

The TSA's Balancing Act to Keeping Our Airports Secure

With a much needed focus on airline security, we must still consider the privacy rights of travelers and be mindful that the measures we implement represent perhaps the most public manifestation of our democratic system at work.
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As travelers headed to airports to start their annual Thanksgiving celebrations, they braced themselves for worse than expected airport delays amid recently implemented security measures involving more stringent and invasive airport scanners and body pat-downs.

Although the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) openly communicated the new measures, the agency nonetheless became the (um, no pun intended) butt of numerous jokes from late night talk show hosts as well as the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit. Privacy advocates vowed to stage a national protest that threatened to further clog the system.

But the heaviest day of the travel year turned out to be more akin to a Shakespearian revival of Much Ado About Nothing.

The muted response and the TSA's success during the holidays should not diminish the inherent tension between individual privacy and security in the United States and the need to appropriately balance the two.

Of course, no one wants a repeat of the 9/11 tragedy. Moreover, subsequent attempts by the likes of Richard Reid or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reinforce the maniacal obsession of terrorists to use airplanes as weapons or negotiating pawns, a practice dating back to the hijackings in the 1970s. On a practical level, flying is a necessity in our vast country, where no other form of transportation can connect disparate people and families, such as for Thanksgiving.

But even with a much needed focus on airline security, we must still consider the privacy rights of travelers and be mindful that the measures we implement represent perhaps the most public manifestation of our democratic system and civil rights at work. The tension here is analogous to the 1980s debate about embassy security, when our embassies became the targets of car bombs. Congress held hearings to increase funding to upgrade the security of U.S. embassies but worried that barricaded embassies would be at odds with their relatively open layout and architectural design that served as a physical representation of our freedom and open way of life to the world (as opposed to the Russian embassies that looked like fortresses).

The TSA's selection of scanners and pat-down procedures represents an outgrowth of this debate of protecting Americans while still respecting our rights. The agency explicitly rejected other invasive methods, such as profiling or pre-flight review of travelers' personal information. (Indeed, a government attempt after 9/11 to create a massive national database capable of tracking all of our personal information was shut down after a public outcry.)

Even so, in the future, the TSA may need to adopt more intrusive methods to keep Americans safe. To date, our solution seems to be reactive to past terrorist activities as opposed to being proactive toward building a system that focuses on the year 2020 as opposed to the year 2001 in order to thwart terrorists' continuing goal to destroy our way of living.

In the face of such inevitable threats, some officials cite Israel's record for airline security as the model for the U.S. As one who has willingly succumbed to its procedures on past trips to Israel, this system would doubtfully work in the U.S. Israel handles more limited flights (about 50 flights per day from two airports compared to thousands of daily flights departing from hundreds of airports in the U.S.). Moreover, while Israelis enjoy democratic freedoms, they also live under the constant threat of attacks and more fully understand the need for thorough airline inspections and arriving many hours prior to flight departure.

If we believe that our future will require more invasive security techniques, we need to start to develop a working framework for airport security. This framework should start with confirming the effectiveness of the methodology. For example, techniques of racial and religious profiling or the scanning of personal information appeal to many. But others, such as Michael Chertoff, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, have argued that profiling is not simply ineffective but counter effective and would have failed to detect such diverse terrorists as Jose Padilla, a Hispanic, or Colleen LaRose, a woman, among others, had we focused on a narrow group of male Muslims.

We also need to openly communicate the techniques we use and limit such techniques for the specific purpose of the security precautions, much like the TSA did with the scanners and pat-down procedures. Critics will surely argue that such communications will permit terrorists to react accordingly but if we truly believe that terrorists are not already assuming that we are undertaking such measures, we are fooling ourselves. More importantly, as Mayor Giuliani repeatedly said after 9/11, we cannot allow terrorists to reshape the fundamental principles of our existence and our liberties.

Americans seem willing to accept intrusions into our private lives and additional inconveniences for the sake of security so long as our privacy and civil liberties are taken into consideration. Reconciling this balance is essential, and given our fundamental need to fly, it is beyond a joking matter.