- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005


The government’s latest computerized airline-passenger screening program doesn’t adequately protect travelers’ privacy, says a congressional report that could further delay a project considered a priority after the September 11 attacks.

Congress last year passed a law that said the Transportation Security Administration could spend no money to implement the program, called Secure Flight, until the Government Accountability Office reported that it met 10 conditions. Those include privacy protections, accuracy of data, oversight, cost and safeguards to ensure the system won’t be abused or accessed by unauthorized people.

The GAO found nine of the 10 conditions hadn’t yet been met and questioned whether Secure Flight would ultimately work.

“The effectiveness of Secure Flight in identifying passengers who should undergo additional security scrutiny has not yet been determined,” the report says.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield called the report “interim” and said it contained no surprises.

“The primary cause for the delays we’ve experienced were the result of additional steps implemented for privacy protection, public notification and solicitation of public comment,” said Mr. Hatfield, adding the agency plans to go ahead with Secure Flight.

Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, Minnesota Democrat, said the report confirms his concerns.

“TSA still has a tremendous amount of work to do to check every airline passenger against the government’s terrorist watch lists,” said Mr. Sabo, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security subcommittee that ordered the report.

Secure Flight would allow the TSA to take over from the airlines the responsibility of checking passengers’ names against those on terrorist watch lists. The TSA wants to begin Secure Flight with two airlines in August.

The program is supposed to work by transferring airline passengers’ name records — which can include address, phone number and credit card information — to a government database. The government computer would flag names on the watch list and identify passengers who would go through additional screening.

The TSA recently finished testing Secure Flight using records of passengers who flew on domestic airlines in June, information the agency had ordered the airlines to turn over.

Privacy advocates complain that the government doesn’t provide an avenue for people who incorrectly are included on watch lists or confused with terrorists who have the same names. Secure Flight doesn’t address those concerns, the GAO concluded.

“The agency that’s responsible for keeping dangerous people off planes is obviously going to err on the side of safety, and that’s going to do very little for an innocent individual who can’t fly,” said Marcia Hofmann, staff lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an independent privacy group.

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