The Consummate Traveler: Privacy versus Convenience

BY Michele Goncalves TIMEMarch 6, 2014 PRINT

On my last international flight two weeks ago, three of my colleagues were bubbling over with excitement when we met at the gate. They could not wait to share with me how they didn’t have to remove their shoes, liquids, or laptops to get through the security checkpoint. Why? Their participation in the Global Entry Trusted Traveler program offered by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Department automatically qualified them to enjoy TSA Pre-Check benefits.

TSA Pre-Check is a U.S. program offered to individuals (even foreigners) who pass a background check and pay an $85 fee to enjoy less invasive security procedures at participating airports. However, for some reason, which I still can’t figure out, I was not eligible for Pre-Check and did not get this status printed on my boarding pass. Upon closer inspection, I took note that we all had the same premier airline status, and the same Global Entry access. So what gives? Was it something that I did which caused them to exclude me? I doubt I will ever find out the reason.

Ironically, a week after going through this experience, I noticed an article discussing the Pre-Check program on a Privacy blog that I subscribe to. The article discussed the fact that privacy advocates are getting increasingly concerned about the expansion of the Pre-Check program in the United States and its related background checks like scanning against government databases and collection of applicants’ fingerprints.

To be honest, when I signed up for Global Entry in 2012, what troubled me the most was the fact that I had to hand over my fingerprints with no clear understanding of how that extremely personal genetic information was going to be stored and used. After performing a quick Internet search on the subject, the only thing I learned is that there are conflicting reports about what is done with the data.

Some say that fingerprints will be stored for 75 years in a database that is searched by law enforcement to help solve crimes; while others say that the fingerprints are passed on to the FBI to do initial screening, then destroyed once approval or denial for the Pre-Check program is obtained. As an auditor by trade, unless I have an opportunity to fully investigate this process myself, I am not sure which answer to believe.

If you are contemplating joining the TSA Pre-Check or any other expedited security or border patrol checkpoint program worldwide, I strongly encourage you to carefully weigh these evolving privacy concerns against the undeniable bliss of bypassing long lines during your travels. My motto is: “If you have any doubt….opt out.”

As always, I wish you all the happiest of travels!

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