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TSA Now Researching You More Before You Even Fly

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“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on..."

The Transportation Security Administration is beginning an enhanced pre-flight screening program that includes using databases to check up on passengers well before they pass through security checkpoints, causing angst among privacy advocates according to The New York Times.

A passenger enters a new expedited security line for PreCheck passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta in 2011. (AP/David Goldman)

You already submit your name, gender and date of birth when booking a flight. This is cross-checked with terror watch and no-fly lists before you head to the airport for travel.

The Times reported that the added measures to the TSA's Secure Flight pre-screening will include passport number, if necessary, and other details, which will be compared with the Department of Homeland Security databases.

Here's more from the Times giving a few details about the expanding initiative (emphasis added):

An agency official discussed some aspects of the initiative on the condition that she not be identified. She emphasized that the main goal of the program was to identify low-risk travelers for lighter screening at airport security checkpoints, adapting methods similar to those used to flag suspicious people entering the United States.

Anyone who has never traveled outside the United States would not have a passport number on file and would therefore not be subject to the rules that the agency uses to determine risk, she said, although documents indicate that the agency is prescreening all passengers in some fashion.

The official added that these rules consider things like an individual’s travel itinerary, length of stay abroad and type of travel document, like a passport. If an airline has a traveler’s passport number on file, it is required to share that information with the T.S.A., even for a domestic flight.

The agency also receives a code indicating a passenger is a member of the airline’s frequent-flier program and has access to details about past travel reservations, known as passenger name records. This official could not confirm if that information was being used to assess a passenger’s risk.

As a separate initiative, TSA is also trying to exempt TSA PreCheck passengers' information from being subject to federal privacy laws.

Earlier this month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center issued comments authored by its Executive Director Marc Rotenberg opposing DHS' proposal to remove these rights.

Those enrolled in PreCheck can be subject to lighter security screening at the airport, but are pre-screened by submitting information such as biometric data, birth place, Social Security numbers and other personal information.

"Incredibly, DHS proposes to exempt this database containing detailed, sensitive personal information from well-established Privacy Act safeguards. It is inconceivable that the drafters of the Privacy Act would have permitted a federal agency to propose a profiling system on U.S. citizens and be granted broad exemptions from Privacy Act obligations," the Electronic Privacy Information Center said, noting that the TSA wants to release the information to various governmental entities. "Consistent and broad application of Privacy Act obligations are the best means of ensuring accuracy and reliability of the data used in a system that profoundly affects millions of individuals as they travel throughout the United States on a daily basis."

"Accordingly, to the extent that DHS continues to collect biometric information, DHS should limit biometric information to only those agencies and government actors that require the information as a necessity," it added later. "Further, DHS should strictly limit biometric information to uses for which it was originally collected."

The Times pointed out that the TSA's PreCheck program acknowledged fingerprints could be shared with the FBI, which in turn could cross-check against an unsolved crimes database.

“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes,” Khaliah Barnes, Electronic Privacy Information Center's legal counsel who coauthored the earlier comments with Rotenberg, told the Times. “There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.”

Edward Hasbrouck, who is working with Identity Project, which is also against this level of pre-screening, told the Times the initiatives are like "a pre-crime assessment every time you fly."

“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," he said.

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