Government Wants Private Companies to Find Terrorists at Airports

Airline passengers who buy a preapproved security pass could have their credit histories and property records examined as part of the U.S. government's plan to turn over the Registered Traveler program to private companies, federal officials say.

The Registered Traveler card would let frequent fliers go through airport security lines more quickly if they pay a fee, pass a government background check and submit 10 fingerprints, according to a federal official familiar with the program's details, which were being announced Friday. The program will begin June 20.

Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley has said the program's benefits could include passengers' not having to take their shoes or coats off or removing their laptops from their cases.

The program is intended to let frequent air passengers avoid delays and to free up security screeners to focus on other travelers.

The TSA already has tested Registered Traveler at five airports beginning in the summer of 2004 through September 2005. Now it wants private companies to run the program, which was popular with frequent travelers.

Before the companies are allowed to sell Registered Traveler cards, they have to demonstrate that they can somehow figure out whether applicants are members of terrorist sleeper cells by plowing through bank records, insurance data and other personal information available commercially - or by some other method.

"It's finding everything out about that person so they're not some kind of unknown," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement hadn't been made yet.

James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the idea that commercial data can somehow be used to find a sleeper cell is highly speculative.

"I'm not sure that Registered Traveler should be a research program," Dempsey said.

Marcia Hofmann, an attorney with the privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, said it wasn't clear whether federal privacy laws would apply to the program.

"It sounds like they want private companies to be in the business of law enforcement and intelligence gathering," Hofmann said.

Privacy advocates have criticized the TSA in the past for obtaining airline passengers' personal data without their permission or knowledge, and for secretly collecting personal information on at least 250,000 people as part of a separate security program.

There is already a private company running a Registered Traveler test program at the Orlando Airport in Florida. Verified Identity Pass, which was started by media entrepreneur Steven Brill, charges US$79.95 (euro66) for the card.

Earlier this month, the company told the TSA that it tested whether commercial data services could authenticate that a person is who he says he is.

The results: "We dropped the idea after fully testing it and finding that it had no security benefits and significant, almost show-stopping negatives," the company said in a document responding to the TSA's request for information.

Other private companies such as General Electric, ARINC and Iridian Technologies, along with airports, think there's money to be made in the business of verifying people's identity at airports.

"Travelers want it," said Steve van Beek, spokesman for the airport group Airports Council International. "We can accommodate their desire for customer service and provide better security."


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