Feds Unable to Search Own Anti-Terrorism Database
TSA Stops Deleting "Secure Flight" Records, But Drags Feet On Project Transparency
Washington, DC - After receiving hundreds of requests from Americans asking to know what personal information the government has obtained about them, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told passengers that it "does not have the capability to perform a simple computer-based search" to locate individual records.
TSA revealed last fall that it would use private passenger data from all domestic airline flights taken in June of 2004 to test its troubled "Secure Flight" passenger-screening system. In response to a fruitless Privacy Act request by four Alaska residents, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) encouraged other airline passengers to request their own files. TSA recently began notifying the passengers who filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act requests that it lacks the ability to easily search its records. TSA also said that it would close such requests unless individuals provided additional detailed information, such as the air carrier they used, the dates of travel, and their phone numbers -- part of the data that requestors were seeking in the first place.
"TSA is failing to follow the law," said EFF Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "The Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act place very clear obligations on government agencies for searching their records, and TSA has simply said that it doesn't want to go through the effort. It's bad enough that Secure Flight has repeatedly failed to show that it can be a useful tool to strengthen airline security. However, that doesn't excuse the federal government from telling Americans about the private information it has gathered and used to test the project."
In light of the high volume of record requests that it has received, TSA recently agreed to stop deleting the passenger data it obtained for testing Secure Flight until it processed its backlog of requests. However, TSA told initial requestors that some of their data had already been deleted.
Secure Flight, a passenger-profiling system aimed at identifying security risks, is the successor of the controversial "CAPPS II" program that was cancelled in the wake of questions about its cost, effectiveness, and impact on privacy and civil liberties. The Secure Flight screening process would involve comparing airline passenger reservation data with an interagency terrorist watch list to determine who should be subject to more invasive screenings or arrest. After repeatedly misleading Congress and the public about its intention to use data provided by commercial data brokers to supplement the watch list, TSA recently announced that it would not use such data in the program for the time being. Despite the controversy surrounding the project, TSA has stated that it is moving forward this fall with plans for a partial roll-out involving two airlines.
For more on EFF and Secure Flight: http://action.eff.org/secureflight
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation