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Blogging background checking and security issues

4.07.2005

Background Checks - Not a Perfect Solution

An article in Information Week states that the Department of Homeland Security is just now considering the impact of increased security on personal freedom. I’m glad they’re trying to tackle this, but it’s a rather obvious question that should have been taken into account a few years ago. Granted, in an emergency situation (9/11) the first priority is safety and stabilization, but I’m still surprised that it’s taken three-and-a-half years for the topic to be officially addressed.

The example cited is a program called Secure Flight, the goal of which is to create a system that identifies individuals who are higher risk for flying and will thus have a more extensive background check performed on them. Currently, as far as I know, the system in place for identifying potential terrorists traveling on planes is very weak. Depending on how it’s done, beefing it up would certainly help.

But background checks can only do so much. I’m deviating slightly from the main point of the article, but this is something I think needs to be discussed. Properly done, the new system for doing background checks on airline passengers might catch people who have criminal backgrounds or, in the case of terrorists, are associated with terrorist groups (Several governments, as well as the U.N., release watch lists of terrorist names). The reason this system is needed is that conducting a thorough background check on all airline passengers is cost-prohibitive, and we know the airline industry doesn’t need any more financial challenges.

The problem with background checks is that past activity is not always an indication of future behavior. This is where extreme reliance on background checks falls short. Background checks are helpful for avoiding some problems in the workplace and also help companies avoid legal liability in the U.S., but when it comes to terrorism the stakes are much higher. A smart terrorist group will choose to use people who have no criminal records and are not on any of the watch lists.

Maybe they’ll be able to find a good solution to the security v. privacy issue, but I expect there will always be a tradeoff. At best they’ll be able to mitigate risk at a minimal cost of privacy. What we need to consider is how much privacy we’re willing to sacrifice for an imperfect solution.

2 Comments:

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