Signing up for speedier check-in: TSA PreCheck fingerprints

TSA PreCheck has made getting through airport security easier for millions of passengers since the program’s inception in 2011. Some people, however, have expressed concern about privacy issues: Why does TSA PreCheck require applicants to submit fingerprints for a background check, and can this somehow be avoided?

When you apply for PreCheck, you are essentially asking the state department to trust you enough to allow you to escape the rigors of the security checkpoint. Your fingerprints are used to determine that trustworthiness, as part of an extensive screening. The TSA checks each applicant's name against a government watch list that identifies people who are not allowed to fly in the United States. Names are also checked against a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) list that maintains a list of those who are not permitted to fly due to health concerns. To complete a background check, the TSA also uses data maintained by law enforcement, immigration and intelligence agencies.

In addition to checking applicants against these lists, the TSA collects the fingerprints of applicants and submits them to the FBI, which then runs a criminal background check. Once the background check is complete, the applicant’s acceptance is at the TSA’s discretion.

Safety vs. privacy

All this checking is meant to keep the U.S. safe, but what about a citizen's right to privacy? Some people have raised concerns that the FBI might retain fingerprints gathered for the TSA PreCheck program, which would be illegal. The FBI denies this.

However, TSA can also share information with various law enforcement agencies in order to determine a person’s suitability for the program. It’s unclear whether the agency can share fingerprints, but it can certainly share biographical information, as well as information gleaned from the background screening, with any agency deemed to be an “appropriate authority.” Many people, including some at the ACLU, have expressed concern that this in-depth scrutiny is a step in the wrong direction, toward the degradation of privacy and personal freedoms, and the categorization of Americans into categories of trustworthy and untrustworthy.

How the Global Entry program uses fingerprints 

Global Entry does more for travelers than PreCheck, in that it not only allows for less intense security at checkpoints, but also expedites the process of going through Customs. If you're enrolled in Global Entry, you won't wait in the traditional line at U.S. Customs when re-entering the country, but rather scan your fingerprint and passport at the Global Entry kiosk. The kiosk poses a few questions and issues a receipt that allows you to head straight for the baggage claim, and then out of the airport.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether the convenience of breezing through the security line is worth the loss of privacy involved in submitting fingerprints. If, for some reason, you can’t submit fingerprints that meet FBI requirements, there may be a workaround. The TSA can submit a request to the FBI for an alternate method of verification, which will add two to four weeks to your already lengthy processing time. The TSA website doesn’t address the reasons a person’s fingerprints might not meet requirements, and it doesn’t appear that the average traveler can use this to opt out of giving fingerprints to the TSA.