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Recent government reports on the failure of American airport screeners to detect threat objects at security checkpoints may provide ammunition for proponents of the controversial Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) database solution, which is currently stalled by myriad snafus too numerous to mention.

Human error

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General and the Congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) have both submitted reports on the competence of airport passenger and baggage screeners, and found, not surprisingly, that they are no more effective today than they were before the security frenzy brought about by the 11 September atrocities.

In testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee, Inspector General for Homeland Security Clark Ervin and GAO Managing Director Norman Rabkin said that the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA's) well-paid screening personnel are no more effective than the inexpensive rent-a-cops provided by private contractors. A comparison between federal screeners and those participating in a pilot program for private contractors called the PP5 Program.

According to Ervin, federal and private screeners "performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly." He added that "this result was not unexpected, considering the degree of TSA involvement in hiring, deploying, and training the [private sector] screeners."

It's believed that TSA's interference in the PP5 Program and its bureaucratic inertia are important reasons why the private-sector screeners failed to outdo their civil-service counterparts. Both reports are biased against the TSA. They assume that TSA is a lost cause, although, ironically, it had originally been touted as a much-needed fix for the incompetence of private contractors, upon whom blame for the 9/11 atrocity was conveniently fixed in the immediate aftermath.

It now appears that TSA is seen as the chief source of security incompetence and failure. "TSA's tight controls over the pilot program restricted flexibility and innovation that the contractors may have implemented to perform at levels exceeding that of the federal workforce. TSA needs to establish a more robust pilot program that allows greater flexibility to test new innovations and approaches," Ervin said.

Defective detectives

Indeed, passenger screening is no better than it was 17 years ago. Covert testing conducted in 1978 - back when screeners were reasonably polite and quick and unobtrusive about their business - found that 13 per cent of threat objects passed undetected. Today, in the wake of post-9/11 security hysteria, and its attendant aggressive bullying of the public and punishment-strip searching of anyone daring to pass a sarcastic comment, the figure is 20 per cent.

TSA Administrator Admiral David Stone defended his outfit and took issue with the reports. "Testing in the Nineties was in no way even comparable to what we do," he said.

While it may be true that today's covert testing is more sophisticated, detection equipment has also improved to make the screeners' jobs easier, though he neglected to emphasize this fact. The red teams and the blue teams have both got better tricks up their sleeves, so there's certainly nothing unfair about the penetration tests, as Stone tried to imply. Still, bad news for human screeners may well be good news for technology.

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