Flight risk

September 23, 2004

IT IS, OF course, possible that Yusuf Islam poses a threat to the United States. The singer, known as Cat Stevens until he became a Muslim in the late 1970s, was hauled off a United Airlines plane Tuesday in Bangor, Maine, on national security grounds after his name turned up on a government-issued list of people barred from entering the United States.

But as unsettling as the experience must have been for Mr. Islam -- and his delayed fellow passengers -- it's both instructive and chilling for all air travelers. Because Mr. Islam's plane was en route to Washington -- from London.

So here's a passenger whose name is on the no-fly list, and it's really him. The airline screeners have the list, and the name on the list matches the name on his ticket. And he gets on the plane and flies away.

This scenario is particularly troubling as the Transportation Security Administration rolls out its plan for a new passenger screening system that would require airlines to provide the government with flight information on all passengers. A computer system, which will be tested this fall on millions of passenger records from last June, would match every name against names on terrorist watch lists, and would attempt to verify each passenger's identity.

Just like the now-defunct CAPPS II program that preceded it, the new plan, dubbed Secure Flight, raises quite legitimate privacy concerns. Apparently, the government would have access to everyone's air travel itineraries, along with such information as who is traveling with whom, what meals they are ordering, and whether they behave oddly at check-in. And for establishing identity, the government would be free to access private data bases for information unrelated to travel.

These are not minor quibbles, but even absent the privacy issue, what about the proposal's practicality?

If watch-list names aren't now caught until after a plane has headed across the Atlantic, as in the case of Mr. Islam, how realistic is it to think that a more complicated procedure would allow dangerous passengers to be pulled aside in a more timely manner? It does not ease our misgivings to know that the process will be facilitated by government computers.

It's bad enough when the federal government continues to cross the line on privacy issues, but surely worse when such unwarranted and expensive intrusions are ineffectual as well.

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