- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

The investigative arm of Congress is beginning an inquiry into a new system designed to check the names of airline passengers against the government’s terrorist watch list amid concerns about its effectiveness and reliability.

Adm. David Stone, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told reporters yesterday that the TSA would start testing the new system, dubbed “Secure Flight” in November. The results would be analyzed in December, and Secure Flight would be phased in next year.

The “next-generation domestic-passenger prescreening program,” as Adm. Stone called it, is designed to replace the airlines-administered “no-fly” list, which has been criticized for generating too many false positives — innocent people repeatedly challenged because their name is the same or similar to one on the list.

Secure Flight also will replace the planned successor to the “no-fly” list, the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System, known as CAPPS II.

CAPPS II was abandoned after persistent questions about its technical feasibility and privacy implications were raised in Congress. Lawmakers added into funding bills the eight conditions that CAPPS II had to meet before money to implement it would be released.

The conditions included an internal oversight board, a system of redress for those wrongly listed and privacy, security and efficacy guarantees.

In February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the system met only one of the eight criteria — the oversight board. In the face of mounting technical and political challenges, TSA pulled the plug on the project last month.

Yesterday, a GAO spokeswoman said the watchdog would apply the CAPPS II criteria to Secure Flight.

“We intend to look at the revised system and assess it against the same eight criteria we reported on earlier this year,” said Assistant Director of Public Affairs Susan Becker.

Under Secure Flight, airline reservation systems automatically would submit to TSA computers the entire Passenger Name Record (PNR).

The PNR contains about 60 data fields, including name, address, phone number, credit-card details and any special medical or religious dietary requirements.

Adm. Stone said by using the other data fields, Secure Flight would be able to distinguish between those who actually were known or suspected terrorists on one of the government’s watch lists and those who simply had the same or a similar name.

He said the new system would enable TSA “to very quickly resolve ambiguities between a person’s name and those that are on the no-fly list with a similar name.”

During the monthlong testing period, the agency would use historical PNR data to find out which fields could be used that way, he said.

During the past year, a number of airlines have faced criticism from privacy advocates and customers for voluntarily releasing such data to the federal government for testing and development purposes. But Adm. Stone said the TSA would introduce regulations, making the data transfer compulsory.

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