1. Archive

Agency tells airlines to hand over passenger records

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday it will require every airline in the country to turn over records on every passenger they carried domestically in June, so the agency can test a system to match passenger names against lists of known or suspected terrorists.

The data that will be ordered varies from airline to airline. It includes the passenger's name, address, telephone number and flight number. It might include the names of others traveling in the same party, meal preference, whether the reservation was changed, method of payment and comments by airline employees _ such as whether a passenger was drunk or belligerent.

The agency says the goal is to reduce the number of people selected for more intensive screening, including "wanding," pat-downs and hand-searches of carry-ons, and to increase the chance that people on government "watch lists" will be searched.

Airlines check passengers' names against government lists of suspicious persons. But the government, fearful the lists could fall into the wrong hands, does not give the airlines all the names.

The new order, which will take effect after a 30-day comment period, would require airlines to provide the same kind of information on passengers that several, including JetBlue and Northwest, turned over voluntarily to the government or to a private company. The airlines were embarrassed by the disclosure that they were voluntarily doing that.

"We believe the government needs to have a legal order to compel production of this data," said Jack Evans of the Air Transport Association, the trade group of the major carriers. He added that delivering the information under government order would protect the carriers from lawsuits.

The department's sensitivity on the issue is reflected by its placing several documents related to the proposal in the Federal Register today for public comment, a first for the agency. The TSA is promising to listen to airlines, privacy advocates and others who opposed an earlier system. "We're giving them a chance to comment on the order, which we almost never do," said Justin Oberman, director of the TSA's Office of National Risk Assessment.

The agency plans to issue the new order 10 days after the comment period ends, and begin the program sometime in the spring.

The proposal for a new program, called "Secure Flight," replaces a controversial program that was to be called CAPPS 2, for Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, but appears to contain some of the elements privacy advocates found objectionable in the first proposal.

In the documents scheduled for publication today, the TSA said it had dropped CAPPS 2 because of objections to "mission creep."

CAPPS 2 would have been used not only to determine who should be subjected to additional scrutiny and who was on the "no fly" list, but to apprehend people for whom there were warrants for violent crime. The new program will not be used to apprehend people wanted for violent crimes, officials said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union said the new program appeared to retain most of the objectionable features. By demanding the "passenger name record," the TSA would be receiving not only the travelers' name, phone number and address, said Barry Steinhart of the ACLU, but information like "whether you ordered the low-salt, kosher meal and who is sleeping in your hotel room."

He said there was nothing to prevent the government from reviving the idea of using the airport security system to apprehend people wanted for unrelated crimes. But he added that his group had never opposed the idea of having the government check passenger names against a watch list, rather than the airlines. "The question is not whether TSA should do the administration, it's what program they should be administering," he said.

Secure Flight continues to use another feature that raised the hackles of privacy advocates: government use of commercial data about citizens who are not accused of a crime. The TSA said it would use that data with techniques used by private companies to find people who might be committing identity theft. In the TSA's case, the object would be to find people who might be flying under assumed names, and thus might be security risks.

But Mark Hatfield Jr., a spokesman for the agency, said that in every hearing where screening had been discussed, members of Congress had asked how the TSA would assure that the traveler was giving his or her real name.

Lisa Dean, the TSA's privacy officer, said under the proposed system, "We're not looking for every passenger as a potential terrorist. What we're looking for is the people who are actually on that list."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that used the Freedom of Information Act to get internal documents from TSA that showed how the CAPPS 2 program "mission creep" had grown to include nonaviation purposes, gave Secure Flight a mixed review.

Marcia Hofmann, the center's staff counsel and director of the Open Government Project, said that the TSA had made a step forward by asking for comment, but added, "The TSA has exempted Secure Flight from as many legal obligations under federal privacy law as it possibly could."