TSA Cannot Be Trusted

By Bill Scannell
USA Today, September 27th, 2004

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wants the flying public to trust it with the travel records of everyone who flew in June.  The TSA wants these 54 million records – which include everything from credit card numbers to whether a kosher meal was requested – to test Secure Flight, a revised version of a discredited proposal for a passenger profiling system, known as CAPPS II.

The TSA does not deserve our trust.

Have we forgotten the TSA's record on privacy?  During the past two years, the TSA secretly obtained millions of travel records from several airlines and airline reservation systems.  When a public outcry arose over the threat to privacy, the agency misled the public about its role.  It wasn't until last June that the TSA finally admitted to not only obtaining records, but also passing them on to government contractors working on a project to assign risk levels to air passengers.

No one within the TSA has been punished for these egregious privacy invasions.  And there has been no public conclusion to a review of the episode by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is the TSA's parent.

We still don't know how the records obtained earlier were used.  And now the agency is asking for millions more passenger records for a test, never even outlining a clear purpose for that test.

More than 120,000 names are on terrorist watch lists that the TSA will use to screen fliers.  Nowhere does the TSA mention testing the right of passengers to seek redress of an error.  It is also mute on how a flier who is wrongly placed on the watch list could have his or her name removed.

Secure Flight should not be considered for testing until the TSA gives a full accounting of its prior use of passenger records.  Waiting for the release of the DHS inspector general's report would be a reasonable first step.  In addition, the TSA should first prove the reliability of its watch lists.

Secure Flight is just a stripped-down version of the old CAPPS II system with a more consumer-friendly name.

Last July, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge said CAPPS II was dead, gesturing as if he were driving a stake through its heart.  The public shouldn't be fooled by the program's new trappings.  This is the same old vampire, which shouldn't be allowed to rise.

Bill Scannell is a Washington-based publicist and privacy advocate.

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