Jan 22 2013

TSA replaces “probable cause” with private profiling

The TSA has made explicit its intent to take the next logical but lawless step in the merger of (1) profiling of travelers and (2) privatization of judicial decision-making: outsourcing of decisions as to who should be subjected to what degree of intrusiveness of search to private contractors acting on the basis of commercial data.

The TSA already delegates on-the-spot “discretionary” decisions about searches (“screening”) to private contractors at airports like SFO, and relies for its profiling (“prescreening” and “no-fly”) decisions on commercial data contained in airline Passenger Name Records (PNRs).

Now a request for proposals quietly posted by the TSA early this month among the “Federal Business Opportunities” at FBO.gov, and spotted by the ACLU, gives notice that the TSA is considering “Third Party Prescreening” of travelers: TSA contractors would decide in advance (secretly, of course, on the basis of secret dossiers from private data aggregators) which travelers would be “invited” to proceed through the less-intrusive-search “Pre-Check” security lanes, and which would be subjected to “ordinary”, more intrusive groping of their bodies, opening of carry-on baggage and belongings, interrogation, etc.

In effect, “Third Party Prescreening”, as the concept is defined in the TSA notice to would-be contractors, would replace probable cause with private profiling as the basis for determining who among us would be legally obligated, as a condition of the exercise of Constitutional civil liberties and internationally recognized human rights, to submit to exactly what degree of intrusiveness of search of our persons and property.

The by-invitation-only TSA “Pre-Check” profiling scheme is already entirely arbitrary, as travelers have discovered when they have tried to find out how to obtain an invitation to the less-mistrusted-traveler club or why they haven’t been invited. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” if we want to invite you, say airlines and the TSA.  There are no publicly-disclosed substantive or procedural standards for invitation or inclusion.

“Third Party Prescreening” would extend that arbitrariness to advance decisions that particular travelers must submit to heightened “screening” (or are not to be allowed to proceed through lighter screening, which amounts to the same thing) before they will be “allowed” to exercise their right to travel.

Such a particularized decision, in advance, conditioning travel by a specific traveler on submission to a specific type or degree of intrusiveness of search is not what was contemplated in judicial decisions upholding “administrative” searches at airports.   Rather, this is the sort of search that the Constitution demands be justified by probable cause, as articulated to and approved by a judge.

Private contractors are not judges. Fitting the profile, based on a secret commercial dossier, as determined by a secret algorithm, is not probable cause. No “Third Party Prescreening” could create a lawful basis for a search, or for interference with the right to travel of those who decline to submit to such a search.