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TSA tests automated ID scanners -- and ex-administrator Kip Hawley's patience

You can scan groceries at the supermarket and hardware at Home Depot. Now, it seems, TSA wants you to scan your own boarding pass.

Last week, the agency announced a new pilot program that uses machines to check IDs and boarding passes instead of having agents examine them with black lights and magnifying glasses. Currently being tested at Washington Dulles International Airport, the agency is touting the technology as another step in its efforts to move toward a system that targets passengers based on their perceived risk.

That effort got significant attention this weekend in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal in which Kip Hawley, former administrator of TSA, went so far as to say that “Airport security in America is broken.”

According to Hawley, TSA has focused too much on enforcing regulations on prohibited items and too little on analyzing and managing risk, an approach that has been both an operational mistake and a public-service disaster.

In fact, he went so far as to call for eliminating the ban on prohibited items, except for obvious weapons, and allowing passengers to carry liquids in any quantity in their carry-on bags.

“The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk,” said Hawley. “In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.”

Known as Credential Authentication Technology – Boarding Pass Scanning Systems (CAT-BPSS), the technology "will scan a passenger's boarding pass and photo ID, and then automatically verify the names provided on both documents match and authenticate the boarding pass," TSA said in a press release. Furthermore, CAT-BPSS will analyze and compare security features embedded in photo IDs and determine if they are altered or fraudulent.

If there are discrepancies, agents will likely ask additional questions; if an ID is determined to be fraudulent, law-enforcement officials will be alerted. The agency is currently planning to expand the pilot program to Houston and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

According to security experts who spoke with msnbc.com, CAT-BPSS represent a step toward more efficient and increasingly risk-based security procedures. 

“When you use machines to authenticate documents, you minimize the room for error,” said security consultant Kiersten Todt Coon, president and CEO of Liberty Group Ventures LLC. “And when you take the human element out of it, [agents] can focus on the things that look anomalous when people are going through security.”

At the same time, she says, there may also be a psychological benefit as the machines may help minimize some of the frustrations travelers feel about security. “When all the TSA agent is doing is scanning the document, there’s no appearance that they’re making a subjective decision in terms of additional screening,” she told msnbc.com. “That will mitigate some of that disgruntled passenger feeling.”

And, if the current test is successful and the program is expanded, traveler frustration levels could drop even further as more airports get the new technology. After all, just as scanners at grocery and hardware stores have reduced the need for cashiers, automating document-authentication could mean a reduction in TSA staffing and the unpleasant traveler-agent interactions that can result.

“This is probably the first significant step toward dramatically reducing the staffing at checkpoints,” said Peter Goelz, senior vice president at O’Neill & Associates and a former managing director at the National Transportation Safety Board.

“If you pass your [documents] through a machine, there’s not a lot for a TSA guy to do,” he told msnbc.com. “Hopefully, within a few years, there’ll be kiosks set up that will check your boarding pass and ID and there will only be a couple of guys standing around.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.