My family and I just got back from a India vacation. As always, we had a great time and as always, the travel was painful. One, because of its length and also because of all the documentation checks at various points in the journey. But in hindsight, I am feeling thankful that we were back in the States before the latest terrorist attack on the NWA jetliner to Detroit took place. A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallak, tried to set off an explosive device but thankfully did not succeed.
Now apparently, this individual was on the anti-terrorism radar for a while. He was on the terrorist watch-list but not on the official no-fly list. Hence, he was allowed to board the flight going from Amsterdam to Detroit, where he tried to perpetrate his misdeed. The events have raised a number of valid questions on the job the TSA (the agency in charge of ensuring safe air travel within and to/from the US) is doing in spotting these kinds of threats. There were a number of red flags in this case. A passenger who had visited Yemen - a place as bad as Pakistan when it comes to providing a safe haven for terrorists. A ticket paid in cash. Just one carry-on bag and no bags checked in. A warning coming from this individual's family, no less. A denied British visa - another country that has as much to fear from terrorism as the US. The question I have is: could more have been done? Could analytics have been deployed more effectively to identify and isolate the perpetrator? And how could all of this be achieved without giving a very overt impression of profiling? A few ideas come to mind.
First, a scoring system to constantly upgrade the threat level of individuals and provide a greater amount of precision in understanding the threat posed by an individual at a certain point in time. A terror list of 555,000 is too bloated and is likely to contain a fair number of false positives. This model would use latest information about the traveler, all of which can be gathered at the time of travel or before travel. Is the traveler a US citizen or a citizen of a friendly country? (US Citizen or Perm Resident = 1, Citizen of US ally = 2, Other countries = 3, Known terrorist nation = 5) Has the person bought the ticket in cash or by electronic payment? (Electronic payment = 1, Physical instrument such as a cheque = 2, Cash = 5) Does the person have a US contact? Is the contact a US citizen or a permanent resident? Is the person traveling to a valid residential address? What are the countries the individual has visited in the last 24 months? And so on. You get the idea. Now the weights that have been attached are quite arbitrary to start, but they can always be adjusted as the perception of these risk factors change and our understanding evolves.
Now what needs to be done is to update the parameters of this model every 3-6 months or so. Then every individual on the database as well as very person traveling needs to be scored using this model and high scorers (high risk of either having connections to terrorist network or traveling with some nefarious intent) can be identified for additional screening and scrutiny. These are the types of common-sense solutions that can be deployed to solve these types of ticklish problems. When the size of the problem has been reduced from 555,000 people on whom you need to spend the same amount of time, to one where the amount of scrutiny can be sloped based on the propensity to cause trouble, the problem suddenly becomes a lot more tractable.