WASHINGTON - A privacy dispute with the airlines has derailed the government's effort to modernize the system used to pick out suspicious passengers at airports, and officials of the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday that they would not say when it would be running.
Congressional auditors reported yesterday that the plan faces many unanswered questions about preventing abuse of the data, guarding privacy and coping with inaccuracies.
Responding to the General Accounting Office report, officials of the Department of Homeland Security said that the auditors were largely correct and that they had been stymied in testing the system because the airlines were afraid to volunteer sample data on passengers for fear of offending their customers. But the officials said that parts of the program could be in place by the end of the year.
"They are right to point out there are a number of unanswered questions," said Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the department's chief privacy officer. "But that is not to say that they are unanswerable questions."
The government has already issued two sets of draft rules, and will issue a third set, officials said. The changes included cutting the length of time that the government would retain the records, to a few days after the last flight of an itinerary is completed; the first proposal was up to 50 years.
But privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the report was a sign that the concept was fatally flawed.
The system determines who will be pulled aside for "secondary screening" at airport checkpoints. The program now in use, the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, was developed in the late 1990s by Northwest Airlines at the behest of the Federal Aviation Administration, which was then in charge of aviation security.
The system is operated by the airlines based on their computer records about their passengers, and some of those computers are so old that they cannot store all the letters in a passenger's name.
Under the replacement system, airlines would submit the name, address, telephone number and birth date of each passenger.
The department would turn that information over to a commercial database company, which would try to learn whether the name represented a real identity and report back with a numerical score akin to a credit rating.
The government's aim is to cut the number of people who are now diverted for "secondary screening," generally meaning use of a metal-detecting wand and a hand search of carry-on bags, to about 4 percent from 14 percent now.