Most Americans Willing to Sacrifice Some Privacy for More Security When Flying

By Matthew Harwood

The persistent fear of terrorism combined with the failed Christmas day terrorist attack maybe convincing Americans to forgo privacy for security when flying, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The latest entry in a string of biannual security surveys conducted by Unisys, an security technology company, finds that 65 percent of Americans are seriously concerned about the threat of terrorism. The survey also found that nine out of ten Americans are willing to sacrifice some amount of privacy to ensure their flight doesn't become a terrorist target.

Since the survey's start in the second half of 2007, national security has consistently ranked as Americans top security concern. The only time national security was not the chief security concern was during the first half of 2009 when the economic downturn made Americans more concerned for their financial lives.

The pervasive fear of terrorism, compounded by a Nigerian jihadist's attempt to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas, has led Americans to tolerate even more intrusive security practices.

According to the survey, 7 out of ten Americans would provide personal data in advance to increase the safety of their flight, while 57 percent would provide biometric information to verify their identity before boarding a plane.

Sixty-five percent of Americans said they were willing to cooperate with full-body scans at the airport—a screening method civil libertarians criticize as "virtual strip searches." In response to the botched terrorism attack, the Department of Homeland Security has announced it will deploy 1,000 full body scanners at airport checkpoints by the end of 2011.

These numbers track well with a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted three weeks after the failed attack by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In mid-January, 78 percent of Americans polled approved of full body scanners while 67 percent said they felt comfortable submitting to the scan.

"If we asked this question before December, we might have seen a different response," said Patricia Titus, CISO of Unisys Federal Systems.

The poll still shows, however, that Americans are more reluctant to cooperate with full body scans than their counterparts in the United Kingdom and Australia. Ninety percent of U.K. citizens and 70 percent of Australians say they would submit to full body scans.

(In this month's issue of Security Management, Assistant Editor Stephanie Berrong reports on a RAND study that tried to monetize how much privacy's worth to British citizens.)

Some analysts believe Americans' increasing willingness to side with security over privacy is a good thing.

"The finding that an overwhelming number of Americans are willing to submit private information to enjoy safe air travel provides strong evidence that the public's privacy fears may be in decline," said Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute.

Titus called Americans increasing willingness to trade privacy for security "a positive for our Transportation Security Administration and our border patrol."

Also yesterday, Unisys announced its new Next Generation Airport Passenger Security Solution, which the company described as taking "advantage of the ongoing transition in many countries to biometric electronic passports, or 'e-passports,' which feature embedded biometric data about the traveler within the documents." In the press release, the company refers to its security survey to argue consumers are ready for its biometrically-enhanced security solution.

Unisys Security Index is not, however, limited to national security. The survey also polls Americans on financial security, personal security, and Internet security. Aside from the United States' primary concern over national security, the poll found that Americans next two biggest fears were identity theft and payment card fraud.

♦ Photo of image produced by full body scanner by Department of Homeland Security/WikiMediaCommons


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