TSA's No-fly system tripped up by human factors

The near get-away of the Times Square bomber stemmed from a process requiring human intervention

The near escape of the Times Square bomb plot suspect last week highlighted how human failure can undermine an otherwise technically sound system.

The system in question is the Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly watch list. Although Obama administration officials say the system worked, culminating in the apprehension of Faisal Shahzad, many observers wondered why Shahzad made it onto a flight when his name was on the list.

The hitch was the tight timeline. Although Shahzad’s name was added to the list at approximately 12:30 p.m. Monday, the update had not yet made it into all the systems that government agencies and airlines use by the time he arrived at the airport that evening, reports Daniel Farber at CBS News.

To work properly in such a scenario, the system depends on human intervention. In the event that the government has identified a high-risk suspect, they notify airlines, which are then required to recheck the list manually, said Jerry Markon, Spencer Hsu and Anne Kornblut at the Washington Post.

According to the rules in place, airlines had 24 hours to make the check, which enabled Shahzad to slip through. As of May 5, the deadline is now two hours, the Post reports.

"The policy change announced Wednesday underscores the challenge U.S. security officials face as they rely on individual airlines to scan lists of potentially high-risk passengers and help to screen them out,” the article states.

Some of the challenges could be reduced in the near future because of a previously planned change in security procedures, notes Scott Shane at the New York Times.

According to procedures, airlines — in this case, Emirates Airline — have the job of checking passenger names against the no-fly list for all international flights. But TSA, which already handles the task for domestic flights, will be taking that over by the end of the year.

A final encouraging note: Several news outlets noted that the last-minute check of passenger manifests, which finally led to Shahzad’s arrest, was a process developed after an earlier close call: the attempted Christmas Day bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

It just goes to show that humans, though fallible, can always learn.

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Sat, Jul 17, 2010 mylpol joao lisboa

bla bla bla

Tue, May 11, 2010 Susan

The TSA no-fly system of systems may be technically sound but if the underlying source data is not sound, then the decisional capabilities will be sorely undermined. Garbage in, garbage out.

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