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It's unclear exactly what flags some passengers as suspicious

It's a seemingly innocuous string of letters that have been popping up on some unlucky fliers boarding passes -- "SSSS".  According to a report by The New York Times, that code signals that you've been flagged as part of an expanded flier screening program.  Often the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) official at a security checkpoint is handed a small set of cards reminding them of what passengers worthy of special screening are due to be headed through on any given day.

I. Life On the Selectee List

Once at the gate, flagged passengers face extra pat-downs and their luggage is often meticulously torn down, and even swabbed to look for traces of explosives.  The pre-check designees are often stopped at the gate before being allowed to enter the aircraft -- a move that some screening designees argue embarrasses and draws scrutiny to the pre-check passenger.  Flagged passengers are also often denied the right to check-in for their flight online, making it easier to miss flights during peak travel times.

One such passenger is Abdulla Darrat, a 31-year-old urban planner from Queens, New York, who was flagged roughly a year after visiting family in Libya.  He believes that posts he made on Facebook, Inc.'s (FB) network and other social media sites expressing support for the protests which eventually overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi might also have helped add him to the list.

TSA lettering
"SSSS" is a scarlet letter of sorts for fliers. [Image Source: The NYT]

But Mr. Darrat insists he is no threat to the country, commenting, "They pat me down.  Then they pull out every single article of clothing in my bag. They take out every shirt and every pair of pants."

The algorithm at the center of this controversial tactic is the Automated Targeting System.  Fed data including "tax identification number, past travel itineraries, property records, physical characteristics, and law enforcement or intelligence information" the algorithm attempts to guess at how likely a passenger might be to be a dangerous terrorist or militant.

The program has its limitations -- any U.S. citizen who doesn't have a passport is automatically removed from the search.  The TSA argues though that the program -- along with its recently expanded PreCheck program for trusted frequent fliers -- allows approximately 25 percent of fliers to receive lighter screenings.  This lucky lot enjoys perks such as being able to leave their shoes and coats on when passing through security checkpoints and being able to leave their laptop computers in their bags.

TSA officer
The TSA argues the new program helps catch potential threats. [Image Source: World Net Daily]

And the TSA argues that its algorithms have also successfully identified potential terrorists.  An unnamed spokesperson lumped the new program in with a previous effort (Secure Flight) commenting to The NYT:

Secure Flight has successfully used information provided to airlines to identify and prevent known or suspected terrorists or other individuals on no-fly lists from gaining access to airplanes or secure areas of airports.  Additional risk assessments are used for those higher-risk passengers.

But the new algorithm -- the Automated Target System (ATS) -- is an extra layer of screening heaped on top of the Secure Flight program introduced in 2009.  Secure Flight only offered the ability to compare a passenger’s name, gender and date of birth against known terrorists watch lists; by contrast the ATS flags passengers using a much larger data set, and subtler cues.

If you wind up on the wrong side of the algorithm you get placed on one of two lists.  The less severe -- like the list Mr. Darrat found himself on -- is the selectee list, a designation that still allows you to fly, but slots you for more aggressive screening.  The most severe designation is to be dumped onto the no-fly list, a list of thousands of Americans who are not allowed to travel out of security concerns.

II. Civil Liberties Advocates Concerned About Lack of Transparency, Info Sharing with Debt Collectors

Civil liberties advocates are concerned that the new ATS algorithm lacks transparency regarding what data is being looked at, how classifications are made, and who is on the selectee list.

The Identity Project consultant Edward Hasbrouck complains that the program essentially acts in a "guilty until proven innocent" fashion.  He warns:

I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly.  The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.

Many critics also question whether any algorithm can truly "guess" at terrorist threats with a sufficiently high degree of accuracy to make it worth the downsides.  Critics and skeptics are also unhappy with the appeals process.

While fliers can appeal to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) if they feel they were unjustly screened, critics argue most of those appeals go nowhere.  According to Mr. Darrat, "A lot of people I know have tried it.  And it just doesn’t really make a difference."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) -- a top digital rights advocacy -- is another leading voice of skepticism.  Khaliah Barnes, an EPIC lawyer, comments:
The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes.  There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.

debt collectors
Critics point out the TSA is sharing damaging information with debt collectors. [Image Source: Google Images]

He and others are particularly alarmed about provisions that allow the government to share private data on fliers with private entities.  For example the TSA's Transportation Security Enforcement Record System which tracks accusations of "violations or potential violations" of airport or aircraft security procedures can be shared with "a debt collection agency for the purpose of debt collection."

Source: The New York Times

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By CaedenV on 10/22/2013 8:39:59 PM , Rating: 4
I cant go anywhere with my wife. Every single time we go through security she gets pulled aside without fail. Not sure what is so suspicious about a small white blonde that they need to go through her stuff every single time, but it is pretty annoying. Meanwhile I generally look disheveled, have a beard, wear extremely baggy (and comfortable) clothes when flying, have these horrible genetic dark circles under my eyes, and always travel with an old blue backpack that I had back in highschool. If anyone looks like someone who would be a bit socially unhinged it would be me rather than her, especially in the morning.
I think the trick is to actually look just a little suspicious. The TSA does not want to do real work any more than anyone else. I am no more a danger to anyone than my wife is, but my wife looks like a nice normal person who will not mind her stuff being gone through (because she is a nice sweet person), but one look at me and they see potential work. It is much easier to waive me through and hope for the best.
But I am a nice guy, honest!

RE: Flagged
By somedude1234 on 10/22/2013 11:39:11 PM , Rating: 2
The TSA does not want to do real work any more than anyone else…. but one look at me and they see potential work. It is much easier to waive me through and hope for the best.

You are 100% correct on this point. Several years ago I was making my way through the security line to depart Las Vegas after a convention when I saw that the man behind me in the line was in bad shape. He was fidgeting noticeably, extremely nervous, and could barely stand. Several times as we were making our way through the security line he stumbled and bumped into me. With barely a glance, my colleague and I both independently concluded: he's an addict, he needs a fix, and he's probably holding right now.

We were prepared to notify the TSA agents as we reached the end of the line but one of their "eagle eye" spotters pulled him out of the line before we got the chance. We were sure that this guy was NOT going to fly that day, what happened next left us in complete disbelief. After a brief chat with the TSA eagle-eye, he was escorted through a metal detector, not the naked body scanner that the rest of us had to go through... the normal metal detector, and then he was sent on his merry way. No naked body scanner, no pat down, not even a cursory search of his bag, nothing at all.

We were shocked and dismayed... instead of being given an extra search, he was priority escorted through the least invasive method possible and sent on his way. I can't imagine what it must have been like to sit next to that man during a flight.

The only possible conclusion we could draw was that the TSA agent wanted to make sure that they didn't find anything, so they wouldn't have to deal with him.

RE: Flagged
By tamalero on 10/23/2013 3:14:26 AM , Rating: 3
In my point of view, the TSA is moving to a "PAY TO SPEED UP the process" everywhere..
with the adding of the "GLOBAL ENTRY".. "SENTRY" ..etc.. to avoid huge lines to enter the US, to the PRE-TSA checkout model for local flying(where you have to pay to get the pre-tsa membership to speed things up our outright skip the security line)...

so in short.. its a square rich business model for the TSA.. they earn billions by the gov at tax payer expense...for "safety". And they will earn billions out of people who want to get to their homes pronto for "speed up" the process by selling these PRE-TSA, SENTRY, GLOBAL ENTRY..etc.. security cards.

RE: Flagged
By Solandri on 10/24/2013 7:30:32 AM , Rating: 2
Global Entry is $100 for 5 years, or $20 a year, and really only useful for frequent international travelers. You seriously think that's a "rich business model"?

Let me draw an analogy. Some customers at a bar visit every night. Other customers visit just a few times a year, or even just once ever. If the bar wants to set up tabs for customers, who does it make sense for them to give the tabs to? Everyone? Or just their most frequent customers?

It's the same thing with Global Entry. Rather than inspect everyone every time they travel, it's much more efficient to pre-inspect the frequent travelers. They're not paying for the "privilege" of faster entry, they're paying for the more thorough pre-inspection.

All those "poor people" who are "stuck" in the regular lines? They get through faster because of this too. If all those Global Entry people were put back into the regular security line, you'd be stuck waiting a lot longer. But because they've already had their background checked, TSA/INS doesn't have to waste time checking them out again for the umpteenth time and can just wave them through. That means your line goes faster. And you get the speedup for free, because they paid for it!

RE: Flagged
By maugrimtr on 10/24/2013 8:25:08 AM , Rating: 4
Maybe he wasn't an addict. If he was, why didn't he dose before he reached the airport? He could have had any number of physiological or psychological problems which would have explained his fidgeting and balance. There are legitimate prescribed drugs that give people similar symptoms to the one you describe.

People with medical conditions can also arrange things beforehand with the TSA helpline which might explain their ease of passage. There are also rules on who can be put through full screening - he may have notified them and been picked out as a result.

At the end of the day, you passed judgement on someone you don't know. An addict. Right...

RE: Flagged
By dj LiTh on 10/22/2013 11:53:20 PM , Rating: 2
I'm 6'5, Caucasian and i've never NOT been "randomly" searched. Doesnt matter what i do or dont do, i'm always pulled out of line and my bag gone through with a fine tooth comb. I've never been to any 'questionable' countries (unless countries in western europe count) and i've never given any reason to be searched anymore then the next guy. This has gone on for years for me.

Once on a flight from London to LA i was 'randomly' searched 3 times. Once when i got to the airport, before security checkpoints or checkin/bag drop off just walking through to the ticket counter (i didnt even know that was possible until then!). Once more again after i got through security. And another time after i landed. Just amazes me.

RE: Flagged
By Solandri on 10/24/2013 7:39:30 AM , Rating: 2
Single adult male traveling alone seems to be one of the things which trigger increased scrutiny. I got the extra inspections a lot when traveling alone, until I signed up for Nexus/Global Entry.

I can guess what some of the other criteria are too: One way ticket, last-minute booking, paid in cash, no luggage. Those are well-known behaviors exhibited by terrorists in past airliner bombings and hijackings.

RE: Flagged
By marvdmartian on 10/23/2013 7:48:25 AM , Rating: 3
Maybe they think that she's carrying weapons for YOU?? ;)

Not to worry. I'm sure there's still plenty of children and old women that the TSA will be harassing, so you won't feel left out.

RE: Flagged
By mattclary on 10/23/2013 8:35:05 AM , Rating: 3
By pulling aside a small white female, they are proving they aren't racially profiling the group of people who have a proven history of crashing airplanes into buildings.

RE: Flagged
By Dorkyman on 10/23/2013 11:38:08 AM , Rating: 2
That's exactly the case. Common sense tells them to look especially carefully at young men from Middle-East countries, but to avoid the "Profiling!" charge they have to flag others, too. So they go to the other end of the bell curve as the fastest way of getting balance. Absurd.

BTW we signed up for TSApre last fall, took 6 months to get an interview, but now we've used the service a half-dozen times and it's WONDERFUL. The security check is now like pre-9/11: put your bag on the belt, keep everything on, walk through a desensitived metal detector, say goodbye.

As for the cost, big whoop: $20/year. Compared to the thousands of dollars spent on flying, that's not even a blip on the radar.

RE: Flagged
By Dorkyman on 10/23/2013 11:40:14 AM , Rating: 2
Sorry, "desensitized" but you know what I meant.

RE: Flagged
By Hieyeck on 10/23/2013 2:14:45 PM , Rating: 2
Do Global Entry and NEXUS/SENTRI get to use the same lanes too?

RE: Flagged
By Solandri on 10/24/2013 8:01:53 AM , Rating: 2
Yes. SENTRI/NEXUS/FAST/Global Entry all qualify if you enter your PASS ID when booking your flight.

The Sentri agent I interviewed with for my Global Entry pass said they're planning to expand it to include the other trusted traveler programs. FLUX (Netherlands), SES (South Korea), SmartGate (Australia). They're trying to add programs for all countries which have visa waiver programs with the U.S. (They can't make just one program because except for Global Entry, it's not just the U.S. which is doing the background checks. The other country is running their own background check too.)

RE: Flagged
By MrBungle123 on 10/23/2013 10:59:02 AM , Rating: 4
My 90 year old grandfather and 83 year old grandmother get patted down every time they fly...

Last year grandma broke her leg and had to be pushed through the airport with a wheel chair and she still got ran through the ringer by the TSA. Which makes total sense because half of the 9/11 hijackers were 80+ year old ladies with broken legs.

We're Forging Our Own Chains
By Tuor on 10/22/2013 11:01:09 PM , Rating: 5
One link at a time, made out of fear.

RE: We're Forging Our Own Chains
By roykahn on 10/23/2013 5:40:16 AM , Rating: 2
No way did you just come up with that. It's just too good.

No way.
By mike66 on 10/22/2013 10:39:36 PM , Rating: 4
Land of the free, dead and buried.

Total Paranoia...
By bitmover461 on 10/23/2013 10:44:21 AM , Rating: 2
over an unseen enemy, allowing the government unchecked (and unconstitutional) powers. We are truly living out the book 1984. Refuse to go through the full body scanner at the airport sometime and you'll get a patented TSA pat-down. It's quite invigorating to get a hand up your butt-crack at 6am.

RE: Total Paranoia...
By loco2048 on 10/28/2013 8:08:07 AM , Rating: 2
I refuse the scanner EVERY time, out of principle. I am committed to be as annoying as possible to the TSA.

Minority Report?
By espaghetti on 10/22/2013 8:40:27 PM , Rating: 2
I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly. The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.

Do they secretly have precogs soaking somewhere?

By Shadowmaster625 on 10/23/2013 8:53:21 AM , Rating: 2
You can be sure that the next underwear bomber patsy will not have one of these new cards and will not be harassed on his way through.

Combine with obamacare
By Christobevii3 on 10/23/2013 9:35:22 AM , Rating: 2
Can we just streamline this process and you can pre schedule your annual colon check before flying?

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