Risk profiling is worth the tradeoff

Marketplace Staff Aug 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Airlines —and, so, eventually passengers — will probably wind up footing the bill for more security. It’s already a touchy subject. We told you yesterday British Airways and Virgin Atlantic want British airport authorities to reimburse them for lost costs. Commentator David Frum has a way to save passengers money and time.

DAVID FRUM: The success of British security services in stopping a terrorist plot has unleashed all the most perverse instincts of transportation safety authorities.

After 9/11 it was removing shoes in perpetual remembrance of Richard Reid. Now it’s lipsticks, laptops, and full body searches of 7-year-olds, 80-year-old grandmothers, the president of the Knights of Columbus . . . everybody.

These new rules are massively costly. Four billion people travel every year and that means they also go through passenger screening.

Let’s conservatively assume that the average air passenger’s time is worth $50 an hour. That means that even a half hour of extra time at the airport costs passengers more than $100 billion.

Aviation security operates on the assumption that all passengers present an equal and randomized risk.

If MI-5 had operated on the same principle, they’d still be kicking open the door of every house in London to search for terrorists.

Airlines could do something far more logical. They could take a few basic pieces of personal information like name, address, phone number, and date of birth, and match them against commercial and government data bases for a surprisingly sophisticated terrorist-risk profile of each passenger.

Frequent flyers could also voluntarily share personal information to demonstrate that they present a very low risk — that they are, for example, Omar Abdullah, head of cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital; not Omar Abdullah, the Tunisian illegal immigrant.

But the US Congress has effectively banned risk profiling. And security agencies have bogged down airlines that are working to implement trusted traveler programs.

Government agencies act on the premise that anyone or everyone could be a terrorist, that the threat is wholly random. It’s a false premise.

And the question that travelers should ask themselves as they stand in line is: How high a price are you prepared to pay in order to sustain a lie?

RYSSDAL: David Frum is a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.