TSA refines passenger-screening efforts

At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, one of five airports taking part in registry pilots, EDS' John Bishop explains how the iris-scanning system works to Paul Booth, a voluntary participant from Washington.

Rick Steele

The Transportation Security Administration is forging ahead with a revamped screening program for the bulk of airline passengers and honing plans to speed vetted travelers through security checks.

TSA's next-generation passenger screening program, Secure Flight, will replace of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II. The agency scrapped CAPPS II earlier this year in the face of criticism from privacy advocates and others who condemned it as overly invasive.

Airline employees are using the original, much simpler CAPPS now to identify air passengers who could be a safety risk.

For the new Secure Flight project, TSA officials will check prospective travelers against databases of known terrorism suspects. TSA officials will be able to tap more data than airline employees can using CAPPS. Having TSA officials take over the screening work from airline workers will improve security, senior Homeland Security Department officials said.

TSA has taken pains to distinguish Secure Flight from the discredited CAPPS II.

New view

Adm. David Stone, the agency's administrator, said CAPPS II relied on algorithms that would assess the likelihood that an individual might be a threat. Secure Flight will not make such assessments, he said. It will match passenger data against terrorist databases maintained by the interagency Terrorist Screening Center, the FBI and the intelligence community.

'This moves away from building an algorithm that indicates a person should be screened to using databases that have been vetted by the TSA and TSC,' Stone said.

He emphasized that Secure Flight would reduce incidents of needlessly checking travelers and delaying flights as happens now if passengers have names similar to people on the CAPPS no-fly list. Such incidents have prompted lawsuits against TSA.

TSA plans a clear appeal process for travelers who are grounded by Secure Flight, Stone said. He added that TSA would stress privacy protection as it builds Secure Flight.

But some observers remain unsatisfied. 'Our biggest concern about the Secure Flight program is how passengers whose names match the watch lists and are improperly kept off flights will be able to clear their names,' said Marcia Hofmann, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Hofmann said the government has never clarified how mistakes on the lists can be resolved. 'The entire time these lists have been used, the government has not been able to come up with an effective method to clear people, so how will they do it now?'

TSA is gathering passenger record data for tests this fall. In December, the agency will evaluate the test results with a goal of deploying Secure Flight early next year, Stone said.

Secure Flight will handle domestic travelers only. Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, a separate agency in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, will screen international travelers.

Quick check

Meanwhile, TSA is continuing with tests of its Registered Traveler program to speed frequent flyers through security.

The agency recruited about 10,000 volunteers, who receive expedited screening after submitting biometric data and passing background checks.

Travelers initially had to provide biographic data as well as iris scans, fingerprints and photographs to TSA contractor EDS Corp. TSA checked the information against terrorist and criminal databases to vet the passengers. Officials declined to say if any applicants had been rejected.

Once registered, participants use kiosks at security checkpoints to establish their identity and qualify for accelerated screening.

Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge said TSA would periodically recheck the status of registered travelers.

Asked whether biometric information gathered for the Registered Traveler program would be integrated with similar information gathered for the State Department's biometric 'smart passports,' Ridge said it is in DHS' best interest to integrate the use of such systems.

DHS officials expect the program will reduce waiting times and let TSA employees focus attention on passengers about whom the department knows little or nothing.

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