The Transportation Security Administration's many critics just got some more ammunition. According to a report in the New York Times, the TSA is preparing to widen its ability to screen passengers before they arrive at the airport by using databases that include sensitive information like past travel itineraries, property records, car registrations, employment information, tax identification numbers and law enforcement or intelligence information.
The Times says the prescreening program is described in documents that the TSA released in compliance with government regulations about collecting and using individuals’ private data, but no other details are known at this time.
The revelation of a new TSA prescreening program has many up in arms, including privacy groups like the Identity Project and Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly,” said Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant for the Identity Project, alluding to the dystopian Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report." “The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.”
As the New York Times points out, the new measures go far beyond Secure Flight, the pre-screening program rolled out in 2009 that compares a passenger’s name, gender and date of birth with a terrorist watch list.
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“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with EPIC. “There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.”
In response, the TSA released a statement that the prescreening program would be used to target “higher-risk” passengers.
“Secure Flight has successfully used information provided to airlines to identify and prevent known or suspected terrorists or other individuals on no-fly lists from gaining access to airplanes or secure areas of airports,” the TSA said. “Additional risk assessments are used for those higher-risk passengers.”
An unidentified TSA official spoke with the New York Times about the new program, saying the goal of the prescreening was to single out “low-risk” passengers for lighter screening at airport security checkpoints. The TSA is trying to give 25 percent of all passengers “lighter screening” by the end of next year, the Times said.