A Homeland Security Department agency asked JetBlue Airlines to turn over millions of private passenger records for an experiment to identify travelers with possible links to terrorism, according to a Senate committee inquiry.
Top government officials told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a branch of the Homeland Security Department, sent a written request on official letterhead to JetBlue requesting the release of passenger records.
The committee’s revelations are contrary to previous statements by the TSA that its involvement was limited to introductions between the airline and the government-funded contractor, Torch Concepts.
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and committee chairman, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and ranking member, are demanding that TSA turn over all written communications with JetBlue and explain the involvement and why it was not previously disclosed to Congress.
“Although the Department of Homeland Security has indicated that TSA’s role was limited, it has come to our attention that this may not have been the case,” the senators said in a letter to Asa Hutchison, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security.
Torch Concepts was under contract with the Defense Department when it conducted the study titled “Airline Passenger Risk Assessment.”
Using the information from 5 million passengers and commercial data purchased from Acxiom, the program was able to extract the Social Security number, income, occupation, address, rental or owner information, length at address, number of children and vehicle ownership on 40 percent of JetBlue’s customers.
“Army officials recently indicated to committee staff that airlines were reluctant to provide [passenger] data to Torch Concepts without TSA’s approval. It is our understanding that TSA did provide such approval in the form of a written request to JetBlue asking the airline to provide [passenger] data to Torch Concepts,” the senators said.
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said he was unable to comment.
The incident also is under review by the Homeland Security Department’s privacy officer Naula O’Conner Kelly to determine whether the privacy act was violated.
Last month, it was revealed that Northwest Airlines gave passenger data to NASA for a similar study, but the scientific agency said the data was fictionalized before it was analyzed for anomalies that might point to terrorist activity.
The disclosure in September that JetBlue turned over the private data for the 2002 study sparked a public outcry, government investigations and 16 class-action lawsuits.
JetBlue spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones declined yesterday to comment on TSA’s involvement.
“Pending the outcome of the class-action suits, we are unable to discuss the matter,” he said.