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More up-front disclosure by travelers could cut intrusive screenings

By Paul Courson, CNN
  • Some passengers are concerned about the "pat-down" screening
  • Others worry about privacy issues linked to body scanners
  • New technology is being tested, Pistole says

Washington (CNN) -- The head of the Transportation Security Administration says airline travelers could minimize their exposure during the screening process by disclosing more about themselves up front.

John Pistole said Thursday that the use of detailed identity profiles would be part of a shift toward the greater use of intelligence to try to disrupt potential terrorist activity against commercial flights.

"There are groups of people out there, the very frequent travelers, who are willing to provide information," Pistole said in remarks to a lawyers' group. So, he continued, for a fee, "if you don't want to stand in line, here's what we can do."

Pistole said passenger identification would be more stringent than the typical name, date of birth and gender now required to board a jetliner -- information he described as "not much to go on."

He said a trusted traveler program would apply to "those individuals who are willing to disclose more information about themselves in exchange for a different level of screening."

The TSA administrator did not explain exactly what elements in the screening process a passenger could avoid, saying only that it would involve "more identity-based screening than the physical screening."

He said the change would be similar to a decision last November to expedite airline pilots through the screening process.

Pistole's appearance before the American Bar Association was his first public event since the TSA implemented a controversial "pat down" protocol that many passengers find intrusive.

He briefly addressed that controversy, saying that body scanning technology may someday make physical searches less necessary. "We try to make sure we're using the least intrusive means of protection; that we are sensitive and tuned to those privacy issues."

As an example, Pistole said he visited Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, Wednesday to review the testing of an automated body scanner used in the Netherlands. That scanner portrays the human form as a generic stick figure or "blob," rather than displaying a detailed anatomy.

"I think it completely addresses the privacy and modesty issue that many people have concerns about," he said, explaining if something triggers the machine, it will place a box over the region of the passenger warranting more inspection.

Describing how a test subject deliberately walked through the machine with a pager on his belt, Pistole said, "The passenger and the security officer see the image at the same time, and there's a yellow box on the left hip, and let's try to resolve that."

The TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, won a federal court ruling Wednesday that it does not have to reveal photographs illustrating the level of detail possible in the latest generation of body scanning machines.

Activists concerned about privacy issues went to court to try to obtain some 2,000 "whole body images" of test subjects passing through the machines. But a federal judge said those concerns are outweighed by the need to keep potential terrorists in the dark about the effectiveness of the body scanners.

Pistole did not mention Wednesday's court ruling in his prepared remarks, and later declined to answer a CNN request for his reaction to the decision.