RAND: Trusted Traveler Program Should Result in Security Benefits

By Matthew Harwood

Achieving this, however, presents any  trusted traveler progam with a Catch-22. “Though more-intensive background checks minimize the importance of attacker exploitation attempts, they may do so either at the expense of public participation or increased program costs to the government,” RAND explains, although the think tank believes thorough background checks are “critical, even at the expense of the highest participation rates.”

RAND Senior Physical Scientist Brian Jackson, a co-author of the report, said there are many ways the government could tweak the program to reduce the number of terrorists who apply for the program. One is advertising to trusted traveler applicants that if their application is denied, their information could be passed onto the FBI for further investigation. The government might not even have to follow through on the suggestion, Jackson says, the threat itself could be enough to dissuade terrorists from applying.

Another option suggested by the report is to have an applicant's social networks examined during the background examination, thereby increasing the perceived risk that if a terrorist applies for the program he may do so at the risk of outing his comrades.

But Catch-22s arise again: taking such actions, which could be perceived as threatening or intrusive, could alienate innocent travelers from applying for the program, Jackson and his coauthors remind policymakers.

Aside from terrorists applying for trusted traveler status, RAND notes any trusted travel program also has to consider the possibility that terrorists could coerce an innocent trusted traveler to carry a bomb on board a plane or that a trusted traveler could radicalize, known as the “good gone bad” scenario.

To account for such scenarios, RAND concludes any trusted traveler program must be flexible, incorporating the revetting of trusted travelers and random security checks once they reach the checkpoint. The latter, Jackson advises, must be done in a way that doesn’t negate the value of the program. If a trusted traveler undergoes random security checks a good proportion of the time she travels, she may feel the costs of the program outweigh its benefits.

Finally there’s the larger political risk that confronts TSA and members of Congress who support a trusted traveler program.

“The effectiveness standard for a trusted traveler program cannot...assume that no terrorist will ever compromise the system,” the report warns. “If policymakers are unprepared to weather and rationally respond to such criticisms after an attack, then a trusted traveler program may not be viable in spite of its potential security benefits.”

♦ Photo by william couch/Flickr

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