Dec 062018

The four letters you don’t want on your boarding pass – “SSSS”.

I belong to the US/Canadian Nexus trusted/known traveler program.  That involved filling out a form, and then being personally interviewed by both US and Canadian ICE officials, at the end of which, and after paying a generous fee, I received a special Nexus card to allow me fast-track passage through the US/Canadian border crossings.  It needs to be renewed every five years; in my case my membership has been accepted and extended once already, so I’ve been double vetted and approved.

Having a Nexus card also allows people to participate in the US Global Entry and the TSA Precheck programs.  If anything, because Nexus requires the scrutiny and consent of authorities from two countries, it is more rigorous than these other programs.

As everyone who participates already knows, the Precheck program is great.  Short lines and reduced scrutiny going through airport security.

It isn’t just us as passengers who love Precheck.  The TSA loves it too.  The flipsides to the program from their perspective is that Precheck passengers are known to be much lower risk, and require less manpower to process, reducing their cost of screening and freeing resources to concentrate on higher potential risk passengers.

Now, as you know, the TSA has sort of three main categories of passengers it screens, in addition to those on official watchlists and do-not-fly lists.  There is Precheck, then regular passengers, and then passengers who for some reason or another have tripped an alarm due to some quirk in their travel patterns or any other suggestion they might be a threat.  Those latter passengers get a special SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selectee) code on their boarding passes, and because of the perceived greater chance they might be terrorists, are given additional screening when going through security at airports.

But for the second time in less than a year, I found myself with those special four letters on my boarding pass.  The ridiculousness of the event on this occasion was that my first flight on my six flight itinerary was from Seattle to Los Angeles, where I was given Precheck status.  I then had a series of international flights, and my last flight was from Vancouver (BC) back to Seattle, a flight which was again subject to TSA screening.

But whereas, on my flight from Seattle to Los Angeles I was given the Precheck preferred status, less than two weeks later, on my return flight back to Seattle, I was assigned SSSS status, and so spent over half an hour at security while a slow-moving pair of screeners methodically checked every last piece of electronic gear in my carry-on to make sure it operated and had no traces of explosives, and ran several items through the X-ray machine multiple times just to be sure.

How is it I went from the safest category of traveler on the first flight to the riskiest category on the last flight?  I asked the screeners, who of course had no idea at all, but they hazarded it was probably just a random thing.

Two responses to that.  First, if it is simply a random thing, the TSA would be better advised randomly selecting people from its general travelers, not from its known-trusted-travelers.  Just like, when going fishing, you dangle your line where fish are thought to be, not where fish are known not to be, if you’re randomly checking for terrorists, isn’t it better to check in the category of people you know nothing about, rather than to check the people you’ve already done background checks on, who have been airline frequent fliers for decades, and who fly regularly.

Second, having had this happen twice to me in less than a year (and I don’t fly all that much these days) suggests it is something other than random.  Please decide, TSA.  Either you are very worried I’m a terrorist, in which case I can invoke the review/redress procedures to clear my name, or accept what everything has told you to date, and realize I’m no more a threat than your dear old mum.

The main point about this is not so much a personal expression of frustration (although that is for sure also present).  Rather it is one of regret – while the two TSA agents and various other TSA people helping was fussing over my stuff, all to no avail, and gratuitously wasting over a man hour of time, other passengers with greater degrees of potential threat were being whisked through security with little or no review, because I was the exciting focus of their attention.

The TSA likes to tell us that it doesn’t matter too much if they occasionally mess up with their airport screening, because their 20+ other layers of security (largely an illusion, but it sounds good) means that most potential terrorists never make it to the airport in the first place.  So, if they have all these other layers of security, how is it that somehow they all aligned in a “false positive” pattern to selectively point to me as a potential high level threat, inbetween the times of course when I’m a lowest level threat.

There is no sense to this at all.  Welcome to the TSA’s bizarre unaccountable world.

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