What, if anything, can transparency do for the TSA?

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Two days from now a very large number of Americans are going to be standing in line at an airport to head home for awkward family moments and changing the notch that they use on their belt. While at the airport these individuals will have what is likely to be their only regular encounter with security and law enforcement officials.

Oftentimes these encounters are unpleasant and humiliating to passengers. This year the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has added new screening methods that involve x-ray images of passengers or a enhanced pat-down search. If you’ve watched the news lately you can’t miss the uproar around these new procedures. And while there is a significant divide in the public over supporting these new search methods the reaction creates a credibility problem for an agency that has suffered for a long time at a lack of public understanding and trust.

TSA has long faced ridicule and public backlash for implementing an increasing array of security measures designed to seemingly protect against the most recently reported attempted terrorist attack. Terrorist watch lists, no fly lists, remove your shoes, no large bottles of liquids and now x-ray photos and pat downs. Repeatedly the TSA has been asked, what do these measures do to make us safer? And the response has always been that the number of dangerous items confiscated speaks to the need for these policies.

Could making the TSA’s security practices and procedures more transparent to the public increase the trust that causes outbursts after the implementation of new measures? This is a tricky question to answer as it is tied up in the overall argument of security and transparency that run through much of our defense, intelligence and homeland security debates.

If I were to simply posit an ideal disclosure method that could aid in affirming, or explaining, TSA security procedures it would be a public database much like the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) bird strike database. This database, however, would detail items confiscated and which security measure (metal detector, enhanced pat-down, liquid bottle ban) enabled the seizure or disposal of the item.

TSA already has a “Week at a Glance” report on the bottom of their web site providing details like the following:

  • 2 artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints
  • 12 firearms found at checkpoints
  • 14 passengers were arrested after investigations of suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents

This information isn’t quite helpful for the public though. What is an “artfully concealed prohibited item?” What is a “prohibited item” anyways? And how were these successfully found?

A database with this information would allow the public and their elected representatives to determine the success, or failure, of certain security procedures and provide the TSA to display their ability to protect transportation infrastructure. The fundamental problem with a lot of these procedures is their lack of accountability. By publicly recording and disclosing the outcomes of the procedures TSA and their rules can be judged and held in praise or to account.

Now, of course, we get into the question of security. The difference between this imagined database and the FAA’s bird strike database is that birds can’t use computers. People who are looking to evade security procedures could use a database of confiscated items and the success rate of security procedures to determine how to best sneak their weapon of choice on to a plane.

The public disclosure of this information could also spur greater enforcement and lower levels of lax security across the board, thus reducing the chances that any one individual could use the database to discover new ways of circumventing security.

It is very unlikely that the TSA would accept any of these arguments as TSA Administrator John Pistole has already claimed that he refused to inform the public of the new security measures prior to their implementation “because it would then provide a roadmap or blueprint to terrorists.”

There are also many other transparency-related ideas for the TSA aside from this one. Bruce Schneier proposed introducing some transparency to the agency earlier this year. He suggested:

Let’s start with the no-fly and watch lists. Right now, everything about them is secret: You can’t find out if you’re on one, or who put you there and why, and you can’t clear your name if you’re innocent. This Kafkaesque scenario is so un-American it’s embarrassing. Obama should make the no-fly list subject to judicial review.

Then, move on to the checkpoints themselves. What are our rights? What powers do the TSA officers have? If we’re asked “friendly” questions by behavioral detection officers, are we allowed not to answer? If we object to the rough handling of ourselves or our belongings, can the TSA official retaliate against us by putting us on a watch list? Obama should make the rules clear and explicit, and allow people to bring legal action against the TSA for violating those rules; otherwise, airport checkpoints will remain a Constitution-free zone in our country.

The TSA web site does attempt to answer some of these questions, although in a less-than-adequate fashion (and sometimes not at all). Specifically detailing the rights of passengers is important, particularly in an easily accessible format on TSA’s public facing web site.

Ultimately, most of these questions boil down to whether disclosure impairs security in the name of accountability. I personally believe that we can strike a balance between the two.

If you have any other ideas for TSA transparency drop them in the comments.

Ultimately, this will come down to how the public feels about all of this. Maybe we’ll have a more clear idea after everyone goes through security on Wednesday.

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