For thousands of travelers every day the TSA PreCheck program eases the security screening process. No taking shoes off, no taking your laptop out, and just a quick walk through the metal detector makes the experience much more reasonable. One of the key aspects of this program is that access on any given day is random, with passengers not knowing if they are selected until they get to the airport. Except it turns out that isn't quite the case.
The selection for PreCheck access happens in advance of arrival at the checkpoint and the flag for whether a passenger gets it or not is stored in the barcode printed on the boarding pass. This data is not encrypted in the barcode, meaning anyone can read the information off the boarding pass and determine in advance if they have been selected for PreCheck.
Passengers who have been selected for PreCheck still go through the security screening process so this isn't particularly a means to completely bypass the TSA. But the storage of the data readily visible to passengers does remove the randomness of selection to an extent; users will know before they get to the airport if they have been selected or not.
Another potential issue with the data is that many boarding passes have no digital signature or other security information embedded in them. This leaves them ripe for alteration or forgery. The Washington Post recently confirmed that boarding passes remain easy to falsify, allowing anyone access to airport terminals. And those so inclined can even ensure that they receive the TSA's expedited screening where available. The Post goes so far as to confirm that such falsified boarding passes have been successfully used; this is not just a hypothetical security flaw but one which is very real and which has been exploited.
Thus far the TSA's response to this issue has been their typical party line: There are many layers to the security process and this is only one of those layers. Also, they have suggested that anyone altering a boarding pass to pass through the security checkpoint would be breaking the law in doing so. It is hard to find much comfort in that view given that someone bent of causing trouble at the airport or on a plane is probably already planning on breaking the law.
The TSA PreCheck program very much is a good thing for frequent, and law-abiding, travelers. Hopefully the Agency can shore up these loose ends to address the issues quickly.Photo credit: Airport terminal via Shutterstock