Government to get data on airlines' passengers

Carriers must submit information for test of anti-terror system

September 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Transportation Security Administration said yesterday that it will require every airline in the country to turn over records on every passenger they carried domestically in June so that the agency can test a new 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 also include the names of others traveling in the same party, meal preference, whether the reservation was changed at any point, the method of payment for the ticket and comments of all types by airline employees, such as whether a passenger was drunk or belligerent in encounters with airline personnel.

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

Under the current system, the airlines check their passengers' names against government lists of suspicious people. But the government, fearful that the lists could fall into the wrong hands, does not give the airlines all of 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, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group of the major carriers. He added that delivering the passenger information under government order would protect the carriers from lawsuits filed by their passengers.

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. "We want to do this collaboratively," he said.

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

The proposal for a new program, Secure Flight, replaces a program that was to be called CAPPS 2, for Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, but appears to contain some of the elements that 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 before boarding and who was on the "no fly" list, but also to apprehend people for whom there were outstanding warrants for violent crime. The new program will not be used to apprehend people wanted for violent crimes, officials said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the new program appears to retain most of the objectionable features of the one that was dropped. By demanding the entire "passenger name record," the TSA would be receiving not only the travelers' names, phone numbers and addresses, said Barry Steinhart, of the ACLU, but also information such as "whether you ordered the low-salt, kosher meal and who is sleeping in your hotel room."

He said there is nothing to prevent the government from reviving the idea of using the airport security system to apprehend people wanted for unrelated crimes but added that his group had never opposed having the government, rather than the airlines, check passenger names against a watch list.

"The question is not whether TSA should do the administration; it's what program they should be administering," Steinhart said. He said he was struck by the argument that the TSA did not trust the airlines with all the names of possible terrorists. "If they weren't giving the worst names to airlines, what were they doing? Who were they screening then?" 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 any crime.

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