You may have been patted down at airports or suffered the indignity of having your dirty laundry from a vacation searched at screening checkpoints. Now prepare yourself for security to get a little more personal.
Passengers making airline reservations soon will be required to provide their birth date and their sex in addition to their names as part of aviation security enhancements the 9/11 Commission recommended. The information provided at the time seats are booked must exactly match the data on each traveler’s ID.
The new program, called Secure Flight, shifts responsibility for checking passenger names against “watch lists” from the airlines to the Transportation Security Administration. Only passengers who are cleared to fly by the TSA will be given boarding passes.
Personal data on most passengers will be retained for no more than seven days, agency officials said.
But privacy advocates say the changes amount to a system of government control over travel. U.S. airlines carry about 2 million passengers per day. Opponents also have protested that combing through personal information won’t result in better security.
“The right to travel is being compromised by this fallacy that somehow there is a list of all the bad guys and that we can keep them off the plane,” said Richard Sobel, a researcher with the Cyber Privacy Project, which focuses on government intrusions of privacy rights.
The airlines, meanwhile, will incur an estimated $630 million in costs to reprogram reservation systems and collect the passenger data, according to the TSA. The airline industry has pledged support for the new procedures so long as they streamline security and create fewer hassles for customers.
Requiring the airlines to collect more personal information will improve the quality of the watch lists that contain names of possible terrorism and criminal suspects, federal authorities said.
It’s also being done to reduce the misidentification of innocent travelers who are mistakenly placed on “no-fly” lists because their names are similar to those found on watch lists—a situation the TSA calls “a frustratingly common occurrence.”
The extra steps of recording a passenger’s birth date and their sex are set to begin early this year on domestic flights and in late 2009 on international routes, according to the TSA. No dates have been provided.
Thousands of incidents have been reported in which passengers have been barred from boarding flights because their names resembled the names of suspected terrorists.
Perhaps the most high-profile case involved U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was blocked from flying numerous times because his name was similar to an alias used by a terror suspect. Men with the name David Nelson have also been falsely tagged by no-fly lists or “selectee” lists, which require selected passengers to undergo extra screening at the airport, including physical pat-downs and hand searches of their carry-on items.
Secure Flight represents an overhaul of the government’s attempt to use intelligence-gathering to pre-screen airline passengers before they show up at airports. To date, about $322 million has been spent preparing to launch the program.
Experts say the battle to keep bombs and dangerous individuals off commercial flights is lost if the government relies solely on airport screeners to nab suspects based on nervous behavior at security checkpoints. Likewise, it’s equally risky to depend on minimally trained screeners as the primary means to identify cleverly disguised explosives passing through X-ray machines.
Secure Flight attempts to strike a delicate balance between stopping the next terrorist attack in the U.S., which experts and government officials say is inevitable, and protecting the privacy of individuals against un- reasonable background searches, officials said.
However, some experts concerned about invasion of privacy contend that Secure Flight works from the misguided premise that Americans do not have the right to travel and, to receive permission to travel, they must be checked out by the government. They say one danger is the airline security rules could be expanded to Amtrak, intercity buses like the Greyhound Lines and other common carriers.
Sobel, of the Cyber Privacy Project, argued that “a first-time bad guy or bad woman is not going to be on the list. The better, more cost-effective approach is good police work, good intelligence work, not tarring everybody with the same bad intentions.”
The Secure Flight program being rolled out this year reflects a compromise. The original passenger pre-screening protocols were to delve more deeply into personal histories, including past travel habits and personal financial records obtained through commercial databases. Privacy-rights advocates and other groups persuaded Congress to limit the background checks.
But the program remains open to criticism, partly because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will not release data indicating how many people are on watch and no-fly lists or how effectively Secure Flight will help reduce false identification of passengers.
“TSA is unable to release specific results as these are considered sensitive security information,” agency spokesman Jon Allen said.
In tests of Secure Flight conducted with the cooperation of some airlines, the Department of Homeland Security has certified that “Secure Flight has satisfied congressional requirements for not producing a significant number of false positives,” Allen said.
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that watch lists contain more than 1.1 million names (chicagotribune.com/aclu). It based that projection on a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general that the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center had compiled more than 700,000 names in its terrorist watch list database as of April 2007, and the list was growing by an average of more than 20,000 records per month.
It may be hard to imagine in light of today’s threats, but there was an era when passengers on some airlines could board planes and pay cash fares without having to show any identification.
The policy allowing anonymous travel ended in the early 1970s in response to aircraft hijackings, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.