Is The TSA's Pre Check Program A Recipe For Disaster?

11/27/2012 06:56 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2013

As I was approaching an airport security checkpoint recently, a funny thing happened. The TSA agent looked at my boarding pass, smiled and invited me to pass through the TSA Pre Check line. This line had only one person in it while the regular security line had at least 20. I happily followed her instructions.

I was told that there was no need for me to take off my shoes or my belt and that my laptop could remain in its the case. I breezed through the cursory security screen and headed toward my gate.

There are plenty of things wrong with this situation but I'll focus on the two primary issues:

1) I've never joined the Global Entry, SENTRI or NEXUS programs nor have I ever opted into the Pre Check program so, according to the TSA guidelines , I was never prescreened. This was the first and only time I had ever been sent through the TSA Pre Check line. All of this suggests that I was sent through a lower level of security by mistake.

2) Do the risks that this program creates justify the benefits? The pre-screening concept is straightforward. Frequent flyer passengers or those who are willing to pay for faster security screening receive a background check. A successful background check enables them to pass through a less rigorous screening except in the random cases when a Pre Check approved person is sent through the regular screening. The concern with this program is that TSA is supposed to be minimizing security threats where the threat is based on the specific event, someone boarding a plane, not the individual. Each time someone passes through security, there is a certain chance that that person is intending harm. By running a background check and then, based on that background check, lowering security standards ignores not only the risk of a sleeper, but the more likely issue of identify fraud.

Identity fraud is shockingly common, with more than 11 million cases reported in 2011. My experience working as a fraud analyst taught me that identity fraudsters are often very sophisticated and are frequently equipped with detailed plans for how to use people's identity once it has been stolen. With identity fraud, someone can purchase airline tickets using credit cards and pass through security. Connecting the dots, terrorists can perform identify fraud on people with have been Pre Checked and then sail through the lower levels of security.

Given the non-trivial chances of someone who has been Pre Checked becoming the victim of identify fraud, this opens the door to the question of who is benefiting from this Pre Check program. One clear set of beneficiaries are the travelers who can afford to pay for one of the programs listed above. They zip through security more quickly with minimal inconvenience. Other beneficiaries are those whose employment is dependent on running these background checks.

From my perspective, it isn't clear to me that the benefits don't outweigh the risks. What do you think?