A Dispatch From the Cutting Edge of TSA Innovation

Officials in charge of airport security are rediscovering the wisdom of a bygone era, when shoes stayed on and liquid didn't have to be put in plastic bags.
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Something unexpected happened earlier this week when I arrived at LAX for my flight to Washington, D.C. Two lines diverged in Terminal 3, where a TSA staffer held an iPad with what purported to be a random selector. It generated an arrow pointing right or left. I stood for a moment looking down one line as far as I could. But I'd been selected for the other. At the split, it looked just as good. And soon I saw that I'd been directed to the line less traveled. That made all the difference.

The line was much shorter, for starters. Then a TSA staffer handed me a bright green flier. It informed me that I'd been randomly selected into TSA Pre✓™, but just for the day. In fact, my status was only valid inside Terminal 3 at LAX. This confused me at the time. I'd always thought, as the TSA web site puts it, that "TSA Pre✓™ helps strengthen security by identifying low-risk individuals through pre-screening. This allows TSA to focus resources on travelers about whom we know less, while providing the most effective security in the most efficient way."

But I wasn't pre-screened. I'd been directed into TSA Pre✓™ by what purported to be a random arrow generator. 

What did this mean?

Well, they used that fancy machine to test my hands for explosive residue. And then, once I passed the test, I got to go through security without removing my shoes, taking my laptop out of my backpack, or putting my stuff in trays. Everything could stay in my bags. So dignifying! Also, I got to walk through a metal detector instead of a naked scanner. It was much like pre-9/11 airport security, except that after the metal detector they tested my hands for explosives again. I tried to keep the bright green flier as I walked away, but they insisted on taking it back. 

Consulting the TSA web site, it appears that I was selected for "managed inclusion" in TSA Pre✓™:

Managed Inclusion combines the use of multiple layers of security to indirectly conduct a real-time assessment of passengers at select airports. This initiative will operate at designated checkpoints at different times, depending on passenger volume and other variables.

There's a lengthier description at the link:

As part of TSA’s evolving risk-based security screening approach, TSA is exploring the combined use of multiple layers of security to indirectly conduct a real-time threat assessment of passengers at select airports. This concept enables TSA to modify standard security lanes to identify passengers for expedited screening through TSA Pre✓™, which improves security, efficiency and the passenger experience. After the initial risk assessment by Passenger Screening Canines and Behavior Detection Officers as passengers move through the standard security checkpoint area, a TSA Officer will verify the traveler’s boarding pass and identification while the passenger steps onto an electronic mat with directional arrows. The mat randomly designates whether the passenger will experience standard or expedited screening through TSA Pre✓™. This initiative will operate at designated checkpoints at different times, depending on passenger volume and other variables.

Passengers who go through the TSA Pre✓™ process are able to leave on their shoes, light outerwear and belt, and are able to keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant liquids/gels bag in their carry-on. TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening.

TSA Pre✓™ definitely improved efficiency and my passenger experience, even if the "pre-check" part of the name was, in my case, a misnomer. It also made me question (though certainly not for the first time) whether it was ever necessary to force people to take off their belts and shoes and to put their liquids in a little plastic bag (which most frequent travelers stopped doing anyway because no one ever cares). 

Perhaps TSA-Pre✓™ can keep expanding, with the arrow programmed to send more and more people into the efficient line, until we eventually settle back into something like the airport security procedures in place before 9/11, which did not involve screening for shoe bombs or 4 ounces of weaponized liquid or rigged laptop computers. Think of it not as questioning the wisdom of what national-security officials have chosen, but "evolving" toward the wisdom of an earlier era.

Let the renaissance begin.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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