THE BLOG

TSA and Instant Replay

12/02/2010 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The debate over TSA scanners and pat-downs reminds me of the debate over instituting instant replay in football. The football purists argued replay would slow the game down, and some went so far to say that refereeing mistakes were part of the game. The supporters of instant replay countered that the most important job of the referees is to get the call right. Instant replay would cleanup mistakes due to human error, and making sure we got the call right was worth stopping the game for a couple of minutes. I view the debate over the new TSA procedures in similar terms. Critics of the procedures argue that Americans' privacy rights are being violated. Meanwhile, proponents of the procedures point out that any discomfort passengers may feel should be massively outweighed by the fact that they'll arrive at their destination in one piece. Discomfort to passengers is worth the improved security, just like stopping a game to look at an instant replay is worth getting the call right.

Instant replay has turned out to be a resounding success. Remember the Super Bowl in 2009? With just a few seconds left, Santonio Holmes, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made one of the greatest touchdown catches in NFL history. He tip-toed on the very edge of the endzone. The call on the field was a touchdown, and replay confirmed the call. Imagine if he had been called out of bounds, and replay wasn't available -- no touchdown, and the Steelers lost the Super Bowl. Not only would we have been deprived of one of the greatest moments in sports history, but Pittsburgh would still be reminding us of how unfair the result was. Why, they would say, couldn't we stop the game for 2 minutes to make sure the call was right? We had the technology, why couldn't we use it?

Now imagine that we don't have scanners and pat-downs, and that we rely on outdated technology. Two years from now, a flight from the East Coast explodes somewhere over Illinois. An investigation reveals that a passenger hid explosives in his underwear. He was not randomly selected for a closer security check. However, a scan or a pat-down would have revealed this bomb. A mother of two children who were on the plane goes in front of Congress and asks, "We had scanner technology that would have detected this bomb -- why wasn't it being used?" What will you say to her?

Instant replay wasn't an instant success. It has been tweaked since its introduction, and it continues to be modified to make sure it balances the need to keep the game moving vs. getting the calls right. The TSA procedures may not be perfect, but they can be tweaked until they properly balance safety and privacy.