- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

Employees from the Transportation Security Administration acted “outside the spirit of the Privacy Act” but didn’t break the law in 2002 when they transferred 1.5 million passenger records from the budget airline JetBlue to a defense contractor, a report published yesterday states.

Report author Nuala O’Conner Kelly, a privacy official at the Homeland Security Department, says there was “no violation of the Privacy Act because no data were brought into the control of the Transportation Security Administration.”

However, Ms. Kelly told reporters during a news conference yesterday that as many as six TSA employees had fast-tracked the data on behalf of defense contractor Torch Concepts for the Defense Department’s base security enhancement program.

Torch Concepts approached the Pentagon in October 2001, the report says, and offered to try to develop data mining and analysis techniques to detect potential terrorists by sifting through large numbers of passengers’ personal records.

In April 2002, with the assistance of TSA, Torch received data on some 1.5 million JetBlue passengers from Acxiom, a data aggregator employed by the airline.

The officials “acted without regard to the privacy interests of the private citizens whose data was transferred, outside the spirit of the Privacy Act of 1974,” Ms. Kelly states, especially because their “participation was essential [to the project], because a number of airlines had been approached [and] all had refused because of the lack of involvement of a regulatory body with authority over the airlines.”

But without the TSA’s involvement, she adds, the data transfer would not have taken place.

Her report recommends that the officials undergo “substantial” privacy act training and that the department should draw up guidelines governing the sharing of data between public and private sector entities.

Because the report states that a small number of TSA employees ignored privacy concerns, it’s likely to arouse further questions about the agency’s controversial Computer-assisted Passenger Screening System, also known as CAPSS II, which employs similar data mining techniques used by Torch.

The brunt of the report could also have an impact on the negotiations with the European Union over the transfer of passenger data from foreign airlines flying into the United States.

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