- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday released a plan for implementing the contentious Secure Flight “watch list” for screening air passengers, dropping plans to mine commercial databases as part of the checks.

Mr. Chertoff also announced changes to the rules that govern the data airlines provide to the department for international passengers — the Advance Passenger Information System, or APIS.

The new rule for APIS, published in its final form yesterday, will require air carriers to transmit a final passenger list for all international flights to the Department of Homeland Security at least 30 minutes before the plane takes off — instead of no more than 15 minutes afterward, as at present.

“Under the current rule, airlines provide what we call passenger manifest data … after the flight has already left the ground,” Mr. Chertoff told reporters at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. “That is too late.”

The plan for Secure Flight is the latest effort by Homeland Security to roll out the system, which has become a lightning rod for privacy and other concerns about the growing use of watch lists by the U.S. government.

Under the plan, the department will take over from the airlines the process of checking domestic passenger names against the no-fly list, in reality a special subset of the U.S. Terrorist Screening Database. The use of the no-fly list has become the butt of late-night comedians after widely publicized incidents in which children, lawmakers and a senator”s wife were erroneously identified as security risks and prevented from boarding planes.

Past efforts to implement Secure Flight have run up against congressional opposition, in part because of the department“s insistence on comparing passenger names with information mined from commercial databases such as those held by credit agencies, to try to weed out identity theft suspects and spot potential terrorists through suspicious patterns of behavior.

“I want to be very straightforward about this,” Mr. Chertoff said, “Secure Flight will not do any harm to personal privacy. It’s not going to rely on collecting commercial data; it’s not going to assign a risk score to passengers; it’s not going to try to predict behavior.”

Mr. Chertoff said that getting the department to do the screening rather than the airlines would reduce the number of false positives, in which an innocent traveler is misidentified as someone on the list.

“It will be a much more up-to-date watch list than the airlines have,” he said, adding that under current arrangements, the department supplied copies of the list to airlines. “Then the airline’s ability to screen depends on how frequently they update their list. So if they’re slow … they’re going to be more out-of-date.”

But in reality, most of the problems experienced by travelers stem not from outdated information but from the presence on the list of certain common names.

Mr. Chertoff said the department would seek to reduce the number of these false positives by asking passengers to provide their date of birth and their sex when they book airline travel.

“The whole point here is to help us get a little bit of information … so we can differentiate the innocent passenger from the person with the same name who happens to be on a watch list.”