Come the fall, the Transportation Security Administration will begin testing a new way to match the names of airline passengers against those on the terrorist watch list.
It's called Secure Flight and its goal is to create a more uniform and efficient way to keep known terrorists from hopping on a flight undetected.
Currently, individual airlines check their passenger lists against the terrorist watch list, which causes inconsistencies and false positives and raises privacy concerns. Under the new security flight proposal, the TSA will take over the screening of passenger lists and alert airlines if there are any matches. Security and civil libertarian experts have welcomed this scaled back program but are wary of its effectiveness and still have serious privacy concerns.
Still, the TSA says the improved system will reduce the number of false matches that have stopped thousands of people at the gate, from infants to well-known congressmen, because their names were the same or similar to someone on the watch list.
"This information will better identify individuals who may pose a known or suspected threat to aviation or national security," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week. "These programs will improve the passenger experience by establishing a more consistent vetting process and better resolution for misidentified passengers."
Though the matching system was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission as well as a congressional mandate, the TSA's efforts to develop such a system to date been one of its more controversial and difficult tasks, primarily because of the civil liberty implications.
Earlier proposals included plans to create a massive data mining operation that would match passengers' names not just against the terrorist watch list, but also commercial and law enforcement data, court filings, and other public records. It was all to be kept in a big data bank somewhere so that the TSA and others could look for behavior patterns to help ferret out sleeper cells and other potential malefactors.
That raised the hackles not just of civil libertarians, but also of the business and leisure travel industries. Congress even stepped in last year and suspended implementation of earlier versions of the watch list matching program after it became public that the TSA was secretly testing such a system.
The new, scaled back version of Secure Flight announced last week was greeted with relief, but also significant skepticism from civil liberty and security experts.
"At first glance it looks really good," says Bruce Schneier, an expert in security technology based in Mountain View, Calif. "They've stripped out the commercial data and a lot of the extraneous stuff and focused the watch list. So, for what it is, I think this is pretty good, although no doubt it's still a complete waste of time."
Mr. Schneier and other security experts note that it's easy to circumvent the watch list system by creating aliases complete with documentation such as false birth certificates and passports. He says the estimated $140 million that will ultimately be spent on developing and implementing Secure Flight could be better spent improving intelligence gathering, doing spot checks of secure airport areas, and enhancing screening of airport employees with access to those areas. He adds that Congress shouldn't be telling the TSA security officials how to do their job.
But its advocates say terrorist watch-list checks remain an important part of the many layered approach the TSA is taking in securing aviation. Many travelers and their advocates hope an improved watch list system will make it easier for everyone who flies, but particularly for those with names similar to those on the watch list.
It could do that by decreasing the number of false positives, which would reduce the amount of secondary screening done by checkpoint officers and ultimately speed traffic through security lanes.
The TSA will also offer people an opportunity to provide their date of birth and gender, so that if their name is the same or very similar to one the watch list the TSA can easily, and permanently, distinguish between them. TSA officials contend that with just a name, 95 percent of the matches against the watch list will be accurate. With a name and date of birth, that percentage goes up to 98.5 percent. Add date of birth, and officials insist there will 99.5 percent accuracy.
"Back in 2004, the TSA said this would cut random screening from 15 to 2 percent and to the extent that's even close to the correct scale of improvement, it will process everyone [through the security lines] more quickly from the nonsecure to the secure side of the airport," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "That's incredibly important."
Mr. Mitchell and others are waiting for more detail before judging whether the new system will protect traveler's privacy, but Mitchell says it's a great improvement over the earlier version.
Many civil libertarians agree that it is a better program, but say there is still too much secrecy with Secure Flight.
"Whatever negative information the government has on US travelers that leads to greater scrutiny or even being kept off a plane is not disclosed to travelers," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "That's a fundamental privacy issue: It's basically the government having a secret file that adversely impacts you, and you can't see if it's accurate."
The TSA notes that travelers who feel they're unfairly being targeted by the watch list check program can file complaints at https://trip.dhs.gov/ and ask to be removed from the list.