How 9/11 changed air travel: More security, less privacy

How 9/11 changed air travel: More security, less privacy

Security measures evolved with new threats, and so travellers were asked to take off belts and remove some items from bags for scanning

That all ended when four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

The worst terror attack on American soil led to increased and sometimes tension-filled security measures in airports across the world, aimed at preventing a repeat of that awful day. The cataclysm has also contributed to other changes large and small that have reshaped the airline industry, and, for consumers, made air travel more stressful than ever.

Two months after the attacks, President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration, a force of federal airport screeners that replaced the private companies that airlines were hiring to handle security. The law required that all checked bags be screened, cockpit doors be reinforced, and more federal air marshals be put on flights.

There has not been another 9/11. Nothing even close. But after that day, flying changed forever.

New threats, privacy concerns

Here's how it unfolded.

Security measures evolved with new threats, and so travellers were asked to take off belts and remove some items from bags for scanning. Things that clearly could be wielded as weapons, like the box-cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers, were banned. After 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid's attempt to take down a flight from Paris to Miami in late 2001, footwear started coming off at security checkpoints.

Each new requirement seemed to make checkpoint lines longer, forcing passengers to arrive at the airport earlier if they wanted to make their flights. To many travellers, other rules were more mystifying, such as limits on liquids because the wrong ones could possibly be used to concoct a bomb.

"It's a much bigger hassle than it was before 9/11, much bigger, but we have gotten used to it," Ronald Briggs said as he and his wife, Jeanne, waited at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a flight to London last month. The north Texas retirees, who traveled frequently before the pandemic, said they are more worried about COVID-19 than terrorism.

"The point about taking shoes off because of one incident on a plane seems somewhat on the extreme side," Ronald Briggs said, "but the PreCheck works pretty smoothly, and I've learned to use a plastic belt so I don't have to take it off."

The long lines created by post-attack measures gave rise to the PreCheck and Global Entry "trusted-traveler programs" in which people who pay a fee and provide certain information about themselves pass through checkpoints without removing shoes and jackets or taking laptops out of their bag.

But that convenience has come at a cost: privacy.

On its application and in brief interviews, PreCheck asks people about basic information like work history and where they have lived, and they give a fingerprint and agree to a criminal-records check. Privacy advocates are particularly concerned about ideas that TSA has floated to also examine social media postings (the agency's top official says that has been dropped), press reports about people, location data and information from data brokers including how applicants spend their money.

"It's far from clear that that has any relationship to aviation security," says Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.

More than 10 million people have enrolled in PreCheck. TSA wants to raise that to 25 million.

The goal is to let TSA officers spend more time on passengers considered to be a bigger risk. As the country marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the TSA's work to expand PreCheck is unfolding in a way privacy advocates worry could put people's information at more risk.

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At the direction of Congress, the TSA will expand the use of private vendors to gather information from PreCheck applicants. It currently uses a company called Idemia, and plans by the end of the year to add two more ? Telos Identity Management Solutions and Clear Secure Inc.

Clear, which recently went public, plans to use PreCheck enrollment to boost membership in its own identity-verification product by bundling the two offerings. That will make Clear's own product more valuable to its customers, which include sports stadiums and concert promoters.

"They are really trying to increase their market share by collecting quite a lot of very sensitive data on as many people as they can get their hands on. That strikes a lot of alarm bells for me," says India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for digital rights.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske, though, sees Clear's strategy as helping TSA. Says Pekoske: "We have allowed the vendors to bundle their offerings together with the idea that would be an incentive for people to sign up for the trusted-traveler programs." The TSA is testing the use of kiosks equipped with facial-recognition technology to check photo IDs and boarding passes rather than having an officer do it. Critics say facial-recognition technology makes errors, especially on people of color.

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TSA officials told privacy advocates earlier this year that those kiosks will also pull photos taken when the traveler applied for PreCheck, McKinney says. That concerns her because it would mean connecting the kiosks to the internet (TSA says that much is true) and potentially exposing the information to hackers.

"They are totally focusing on the convenience factor," McKinney says, "and they are not focusing on the privacy and security factors."

Security theatre

Despite the trauma that led to its creation, and the intense desire to avoid another 9/11, the TSA itself has frequently been the subject of questions about its methods, ideas and effectiveness.

Flight attendants and air marshals were outraged when the agency proposed in 2013 to let passengers carry folding pocket knives and other long-banned items on planes again. The agency dropped the idea. And after another outcry, the TSA removed full-body scanners that produced realistic-looking images that some travelers compared to virtual strip searches. They were replaced by other machines that caused fewer privacy and health objections. Pat-downs of travelers are a constant complaint.

In 2015, a published report said TSA officers failed 95 per cent of the time to detect weapons or explosive material carried by undercover inspectors. Members of Congress who received a classified briefing raised their concerns to Pekoske, with one lawmaker saying that TSA "is broken badly."

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