TSA unveils new passenger prescreening program

The Transportation Security Administration today took the wraps off the Secure Flight passenger prescreening program, which it seeks to build as a replacement for the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening Program that airlines use to keep suspect travelers off planes.

Secure Flight follows hard on the heels of the agency's defunct CAPPS II program, and TSA took pains to distinguish the new program from its discredited predecessor.

CAPPS II never went live. But it raised a firestorm of controversy about privacy issues that eventually killed it. (GCN story)

TSA Administrator Adm. David Stone said during a conference call this afternoon that while CAPPS II relied on algorithms that would assess the likelihood that an individual would be a terrorist threat, Secure Flight would check 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 [or prevented from flying] to using databases that have been vetted by the TSC and TSA,' Stone said in a conference call with reporters.

He emphasized that Secure Flight would reduce incidents in which travelers are needlessly checked, and flights delayed, because the passengers are confused with individuals whose names now appear on the CAPPS no-fly list. Such incidents have prompted a class action lawsuit against TSA.

Another advantage of Secure Flight over CAPPS is that TSA itself will check the passengers, so airline personnel no longer will have access to confidential or classified information about terrorists.

In addition, TSA screening officials will have access to information about terrorists that the federal government has never shared with airlines. Stone said that the classified terrorist data will be more secure because TSA officials alone will be handling it.

TSA also plans to launch a program under which travelers who are barred from flying will have a clear appeal process. Stone emphasized that TSA plans to work hard to protect the privacy rights of the traveling public throughout the process.

Stone's assurances didn't mollify some privacy activists.

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

Hoffman said the government has never clarified how mistakes on the lists can be redressed. '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?'

None of this is going to happen right away.

TSA plans to gather passenger name record data in September to be used in testing this fall. In December, the agency plans to evaluate the results of the tests. Deployment of Secure Flight will begin early next year, Stone said.

TSA seeks to field Secure Flight as quickly as airlines can provide the IT infrastructure needed to transmit the data involved in the project. Stone suggested that some airlines might have to upgrade their IT systems to handle the burden of Secure Flight.

The new system will handle domestic passengers only. Customs and Border Protection, a different agency that also falls under the Homeland Security Department's Border and Transportation Security Directorate, will continue to screen passengers on international flights. CPB likely will upgrade its international traveler screening system, known as the Advanced Passenger Information System, in coming months.

'This new system will allow Homeland Security to implement a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission'for the government to continue improving the use of 'no fly' and 'automatic selectee' lists by using an expanded watch list,' according to a statement by DHS under secretary for BTS Asa Hutchinson.

As part of the testing process for Secure Flight, TSA will use some identity authentication services from commercial data aggregators.

The aggregators, such as ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Ga., can furnish the financial, government and marketing sectors with a wealth of information about most people in the country based on records they gather and correlate.

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