Feds to Take Over Airline Watch Lists in 2009
U.S. airline passengers will soon have to give their date of birth and gender when buying a plane ticket, as the government prepares to take over terrorist watch list screening starting in early 2009, Department of Homeland Security officials announced Wednesday.
Under the so-called "Secure Flight" proposal -- which has been six years and numerous privacy scandals in the making -- airlines will submit travelers' personal information to DHS, which will compare the information against terrorist watch lists and then send the results to the airlines. Previously, airlines have performed the screening autonomously.
The government hopes that a centralized checking system will reduce the number of false matches on the list, which have notoriously included senators, nuns and anyone named David Nelson.
"Secure Flight is a critical tool that will further improve aviation security and fix the major customer service issue of watch list misidentifications, a frustratingly common occurrence for travelers under the existing airline-based system," said homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff in a press release.
Privacy groups gave the program a lukewarm welcome, acknowledging they largely won a five-year battle to scale back the program's ambitions.
"What remains to be seen is whether the revisions to Secure Flight will really work," said ACLU legislative counsel Tim Sparapani.
"We suspect that although the government will do the vetting now, instead of the airlines, the failure to scrub the watch lists of hundreds of thousands of records of innocent, law-abiding passengers will result in still far too many mistakes and burdens for those travelers whose only crime is that their name is similar to somebody whom the government thinks is suspicious."
The airline industry has long been wary of Secure Flight, due to the costs of changing their networks to interact with the government's and the complexity of clearing names with re-booked itineraries or last-minute purchases. Airlines will have to begin sending data to the government at least 72 hours before a flight departs.
DHS estimates Secure Flight will cost passengers, the government and the airline industry more than $3 billion over 10 years.
Secure Flight's task is not easy, as more than 2 million people fly domestically daily and the program is eventually supposed to take over watch list matching for all inbound and outbound international flights as well.
Currently, each airline matches reservation names against lists provided to them by the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA blames airlines for not using good name-matching technology or doing enough to solve false matches against the list.
Secure Flight is a far cry from earlier proposals known as CAPPS II, which sought to judge each passenger's potential terrorism potential by looking at government and private databases. Those systems were scrapped as being too complicated and invasive after the airlines and the TSA were caught secretly sharing passenger data.
The TSA says it will only hang onto most people's travel records for a week. Records from travelers who look like they match one of the lists will be kept for seven years, and records that seem to be a real match against the list will be kept for 99 years.
The TSA will begin testing the system in January 2009, at first in parallel with test airline's current processes. Airlines and travel agents are expected to re-jigger their systems to collect the new personal information, as well as the passenger's Redress number and Known Traveler number, over the next nine months.
Travelers who consistently find themselves unable to get a boarding pass without having a long conversation with airline employees can try to get help from DHS's TRIP program. Armed with a I'm-not-the-terrorist-you-are-looking-for-number, passengers should be able to print boarding passes at home or at kiosks under Secure Flight.
DHS expects that in the future that people who have been cleared of any terrorism ties by a government background check -- say a pilot or airline mechanic -- could use a Known Traveler number to escape the checks, but that doesn't exist currently.
The long delayed program also needs to be cleared by Congress's investigative office the Government Accountability Office, which has repeatedly found the program's privacy protections lacking.
Although President Bush said in one of his controversial signing statements that Congress didn't have the right to condition funding for Secure Flight based on a GAO audit, DHS said Wednesday it will wait until the GAO signs off on Secure Flight before testing it.