Air-Travel Prescreening Is Laden with Baggage

On the side of the system that's less visible to travelers, where airlines check the names of their passengers against two terrorist watch lists, the government is still where it was before the terrorist attacks.


"Are you going to force people to turn in other pieces of information, such as a date of birth or a current phone number?" asked Elaine Gelman, associate director of Stanford University Law School's Center for Internet and Society and a member of a privacy working group that effectively sidelined Secure Flight last year. "What information is the watch list going to have to make that information verifiable?"

Stephanie Rowe, who runs the Secure Flight program at TSA, does not rule out using phone numbers and dates of birth to match the names. This has led privacy advocates to worry about an expanding and increasingly intrusive passenger prescreening program as the TSA gathers more and more information to accurately match the names to watch lists.

Tim Sparapani, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, points to the growing size of the terrorist-screening database, which the FBI now estimates contains hundreds of thousands of names.

He says that the database has led to increased incidents of "false positives" -- individuals mistakenly listed as suspicious. For example, just last week Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California, was prevented from printing out a boarding pass for an airline ticket online after her name appeared on the TSA's no-fly list. Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts also has been identified as a suspicious passenger.

Hawley assures critics that the TSA will not proceed with the Secure Flight program until it has resolved all of these privacy concerns. "The American public needs to know that when they give personal data to the government that there is a legitimate purpose for it, and it will be used for that and only that purpose," he said.

But the TSA's critics question whether a workable program can be devised. "They don't have standards for what goes on the list, nor do they have any way to correct the system," Lofgren said.

While Hawley and his team try to resolve the problems, airline executives have made clear that their industry, already in financial turmoil, cannot stand another hit. Airline officials worry about a security system that puts the wrong names on a watch list or violates the privacy of their customers.

Angry, inconvenienced passengers are not good for business. But the airlines are also concerned that they could lose money through delays if the TSA does not coordinate its Secure Flight program, which covers domestic passengers, with the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which keeps its eyes on international passengers arriving in the United States.

As Secure Flight is now structured, airlines would provide the TSA with passengers' names and personal data for all domestic flights, while also providing the CBP with data about international passengers. The two agencies would request separate sets of data before they compared passenger names against terrorist watchlists. This can be a burdensome process, especially if an arriving international passenger is connecting to a domestic flight.

Because such separate checks could delay flights and affect the airlines' bottom lines, Jim May, head of the Air Transport Association, the principle lobby for the airline industry, wants the Homeland Security Department to create a single office with a coordinated computer system that can handle all the passenger databases.

"Whether it's Customs and Border Protection requesting information for international flights, or it's TSA requesting information for domestic flights, there ought to be some uniform template for information that's got to be used in a uniform way," said May, who endorses the objectives behind Secure Flight.

Standing in the way of such a uniform system, however, is the expense of upgrading government computer technology to streamline the two programs, say former officials in the Homeland Security Department. And with Congress now slashing funding for the program, finding the money to pay for such technology upgrades is going to be difficult, they say.

Whether the TSA has the ability to solve these problems is partly dependent on its own organization. Perhaps the biggest obstacle that has prevented the Secure Flight program from getting off the ground, experts and government officials say, is the bureaucratic upheaval in the TSA itself during the past five years. Hawley, for example, is the agency's fourth director since Congress created the TSA in November 2001.

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