Proposal would triple size of TSA PreCheck program with aid of expanded biometric identification

A recently introduced bill in the U.S. Senate proposes expanding availability of the TSA PreCheck program for expedited security screenings to more travelers, potentially through the expansion of biometrics at airports.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has proposed the “TSA Modernization Act” with the goal of protecting travelers while also minimizing delays. The bill, cosponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), seeks to make Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program open to more travelers.

The proposed legislation would accomplish this by vetting more travelers in advance and expediting the screening process. Currently, travelers seeking PreCheck enrollment must schedule an appointment with a TSA agent at a participating airport, sometimes months in advance, for a security screening interview.

In particular, the bill would target tripling the number of PreCheck enrollees by 2020, from 5 million to 15 million.

To accommodate a greater number verified travelers, the bill includes a section proposing a “biometrics expansion” by the TSA. It calls on the TSA administrator to assess the operational and security impact of using biometric technology to identify passengers.

The bill notes that biometrics could be used in locations where appropriate, such as checkpoints, screening lanes, bag drop areas, and the airplane boarding area. The ultimate goal is to use biometrics to enhance security while also facilitating passenger movement.

But there is one section in the bill in particular that has drawn some criticism in the identity industry — an inclusion that calls for vetting of applicants “by means other than biometrics, such as a risk assessment,” if certain expectations are met.

The International Biometrics + Identity Association took exception to that line, according to SecureIDNews, seeing it as a potential undermining of the security and convenience offered by biometrics such as fingerprint scans.

IBIA Managing Director Tovah LaDier said the organization is not interested in stopping the TSA Modernization Act, acknowledging that there are “many good provisions” in the bill, including the tripling of PreCheck registrants. The IBIA supports that goal — as long as biometrics are part of the equation.

To that end, the bill includes a subsection for “Identity Verification Enhancement” that would direct the TSA to partner with the private sector to use biometrics and enrollment authentications standards, such as those developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The bill, which remains in committee, would only allow an applicant to be vetted by means other than biometrics under specific circumstances, such as a risk assessment “as effective as a fingerprint-based criminal history records check conducted through the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

The TSA PreCheck program launched in October of 2011 as a means to allow some travelers to bypass lengthy screening processes that came to be after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011. Members must agree to a background check and complete the interview before they can participate, and enrollment is good for five years with an $85 application fee.