TSA: Wasteful and Insecure

April 5, 2012 BY danariely

I travel a great deal so I frequently find myself in the company of TSA agents who check my boarding pass, remind me to remove my shoes, jacket, belt, laptop, liquids, and all items from my pockets (including the previously inspected boarding pass), and then screen these things, as well as myself. Every time I find myself standing in line, in my socks, I inevitably contemplate the efficiency of the system. It’s only half an hour or so per flight, but when you multiply that number by all the people traveling in the United States, it’s a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money. And this comes not only from the TSA, but also in the form of lost productivity of all the people standing in line in various states of undress. One has to wonder whether it’s worth it.

It’s likely that on an individual level, we’re merely annoyed by the time and hassle of the present security routine, after all, it’s difficult to imagine how many resources are being used as you hurry through the lines. Lucky for us, this organization made a fantastic flowchart to help us see how much time and money we’re spending collectively on TSA, and, more importantly, what kind of results that investment is yielding. Judging from the price (over $60 billion) versus results (very few that are discernable), the question is: what do we do? Clearly we want to be safe and we want to prevent any terrorist activities, but it doesn’t seem that the current system is working, to say nothing of efficiency.

Perhaps in this situation, more is less. That is, maybe if we’re willing to give up more information about our travels and our lives, we’ll have to endure less time-consuming and haphazard scrutiny at the airport. For example, I recently had an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of the Global Online Enrollment System (GOES), which preauthorizes approved frequent travelers to enter the US more quickly. I allowed them to do a background and credit check, and then met with an officer for an interview so that he could determine whether I posed any security risks (I’m happy to say I do not). Essentially, I opted for a reduction in privacy in return for not spending half an hour several times a week in line. For now it only applies to in-bound international flights, but I hope it will become more widespread.

At bottom, we have to give up some freedom and information in exchange for security. There’s no avoiding it. So the question is whether we want to do that in half-hour, invasive (not to mention ineffective) increments, or to go through a longer process once that looks further into our lives. Because the cost of the former comes is in small, redundant bits, we tend to overlook it, but in terms of hassle and time spent collectively, the second is a far better option.

That said, similar approaches to cutting time and money spent on security checks for domestic travel might be worthwhile. If individuals could agree to being tracked to a higher degree in order to gain quicker passage through security lines, it would allow TSA (or perhaps another group in charge of security) to know more readily who is and is not on flights. That way we could stop the inanity of having to take off our shoes, being x-rayed, and limiting liquids to theoretically non-explosive amounts.

After all, when you consider the approach to security so far, who knows what the next step might be—will we have to wear certain clothes only, carry only certain kinds of luggage, or no luggage at all? Instead we need a comprehensive approach that addresses concerns more fully, rather than the reactionary, piecemeal approach we have at present.