A Certified Trusted Traveler

As of October 23, 2011, I have been declared by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to be a “Trusted Traveler” through their Global Entry program. Let’s examine what the CBP means by “trusted.”

The Experience

If you fly internationally, you may have seen the “Global Entry” line or kiosk off to the side as you approach passport control. The line looks shorter―that’s the appeal of the program.

And it is shorter―an attractive proposition after a transatlantic or transpacific flight, or even one from Canada. The online application process is heavy-handed and slow, and you have to actually schedule an interview either at a federal office or an airport.

Oddly, the experience reminds me of dealing with JPMorganChase; very nice people, but you have to navigate through frustrating processes and systems to get to them.

But now that I’m “trusted”―what does that mean?

Customs and the Trust Equation

In the video they show you at the interview, several points are made. They welcome you as “low-risk,” though they also make a point of saying that continued membership is subject to good behavior, and that, in turn, is subject to occasional random audit. Sort of like Reagan’s “trust but verify,” I think.

The CBP is obviously trying to certify my trustworthiness, not my propensity to trust others. This is precisely what the Trust Equation was meant to do―to define, quantify, and evaluate the level of trustworthiness of an individual. So, let’s use it to examine what the CBP means by trusted traveler.

As far as I can tell, they use four critical elements in granting status. They demand to see a passport (I have no idea what scrutiny it’s given) and of course require it on entry; they take fingerprints and use them to verify on entry; on entry they match up travel plans with airline records; and they take a photo.

It seems to me the CBP is looking to establish two things: first, that I am who I say I am, both at the time of application and at subsequent times of entry; and second, that who I am is someone who does not currently present any security risk to the country.

Whereas the Trust Equation identifies four elements: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation, the CBP Trusted Traveler Program focuses entirely on the first two attributes: credibility and reliability.

First, the various cross-checks (passport, fingerprints, travel plans, photo ID) are attempts to establish an ongoing identity. They all assess the truthfulness of my assertion that I am Charles H. Green, an individual with a particular history.

Second, the process certifies my reliability as a citizen in the past. It doesn’t extrapolate my past reliability into the future, i.e. as I prove further reliability the checks don’t get more beneficial or less onerous. It’s a one-step, one-off promotion.

And I think that’s it. It doesn’t have a thing to do with intimacy or low self-orientation. There’s no room in it for me to plead for leniency or for the government to be focused on my particular needs―nor the other way around. Which is for the most part as it should be.

The Benefits―and Shortfalls―of Trusted Travelers

The Trusted Traveler Program is a straightforward, mutually beneficial way of expediting some processing within an enormously expensive mass exercise in distrust. In a country obsessively reluctant to be seen as “profiling,” this approach is at least a step toward socially acceptable differential risk-taking—which is what trusting is about, after all.

This sort of trust—exclusively based on certification, credibility, and reliability—has an important place in society. The privacy-niks will always police the boundaries of certification in service to another form of trust—the trust that we can live free of Big Brother—but this trust lets us use things like credit cards, online payment systems, even currency. We absolutely need it.

But it is a narrow form of trust nonetheless. Trust-as-certified-identity can be used for bad ends as well. By itself, it doesn’t add to the richness of the human condition. It is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for the living of life.

For trust to affect quality of life, we need those other trust elements—the security that permits intimacies and the ability to show other-orientation.

Meanwhile, you can trust that I’ll move more freely about the airports.