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Airlines told to turn over passenger data
Updated: 2004-09-22 12:17

Everyone who took a commercial flight within the United States in June will have travel information turned over to the government so it can test a new system for identifying potential terrorists, federal officials announced Tuesday.

The Transportation Security Administration unveiled details for its previously announced "Secure Flight" program, its second attempt at finding a better way to screen passengers without infringing on privacy.

Airlines and privacy groups are skeptical about whether the new plan will solve the old problems.

The TSA plans to order airlines to turn over the information in November. Passenger names will be checked against watch lists maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is administered by the FBI. Those lists include names of people to be selected for additional screening, known or suspected terrorists, and people prohibited from flying because they pose a direct threat to aviation.

Airlines currently check passenger names against watch lists. Because intelligence information is classified, however, airlines don't have access to names of all known or suspected terrorists. The Sept. 11 commission, in its July report, urged the government to take over the task of checking the lists.

Secure Flight replaces a previous plan that would have checked passenger names against commercial databases and assigned a risk level to each. That plan, which cost $103 million, was abandoned because of privacy concerns and technological issues.

Justin Oberman, who heads the TSA office that's developing Secure Flight, said he hopes the program can be implemented by spring.

"There's a reinvigorated sense of mission," Oberman said.

Air Transport Association spokesman Doug Wills said airlines are reviewing the plan and will comment formally later.

He said the airlines support the Secure Flight concept as a "smarter way to separate the good guys from the bad guys." But they still have concerns about privacy and the mechanics of the plan.

"We have absolutely no details about how this thing is going to work," said Wills, whose group represents major airlines.

The airlines have 30 days to comment. They then will have 10 days to turn over "passenger name records" for June.

The TSA was given power to order airlines to submit such information under laws passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The amount of data in passenger name records varies by airline, but it typically includes name, flight origin, flight destination, flight time, duration of flight, seat location, travel agent and form of payment. It also can include credit card numbers, travel itinerary, address, telephone number and meal requests.

Privacy advocates say the new plan has many of the same problems as the one that was scrapped.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the system is too intrusive.

"Why is it necessary for the TSA to know that you've ordered a kosher meal, or who you're sleeping with in your hotel room?" he said.

Steinhardt said the system still will allow people to be misidentified as potential terrorists, as some are now.

For example, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., were stopped at airports because people with their names appeared on watch lists. Kennedy said it took him three weeks and several calls to federal officials to clear up the confusion.

"There are many people who are still going to find themselves in no-fly hell," Steinhardt said.

The TSA plans to set up procedures by which passengers can correct misinformation and by which civil liberties and personal data can be protected.

Privacy advocate Marcia Hofmann said that's something that should have been done already.

"Many of these privacy measures that the TSA talks about are purely discretionary," said Hofmann, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The agency can provide them at the agency's will."

People will be able to request information about their passenger name records, according to documents provided by the TSA. Hofmann said people won't be guaranteed access to that information, and they won't be able to find out why their names are on the watch lists.

The TSA also will conduct a limited test in which they'll compare passenger names with information from commercial databases to see if they can be used to detect fraud or identity theft.

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