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Privacy Advocates Challenge ‘Secure Flightâ€TM Program

by Brendan Coyne

Aug. 11, 2005 – Despite government admissions that data collected during testing of a new airline security plan was improperly handled, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told USA Today that concerns about privacy under the soon-to-be implemented "Secure Flight" passenger screening program were misdirected. His comments drew immediate fire from the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday.

In an interview and article published in yesterday’s USA Today, Chertoff asserts that, contrary to claims the program is intrusive, it actually "protects privacy" by targeting specific people for additional airport security searches.

Through Secure Flight, the Transportation Security Administration would match passenger data provided by individual airlines against commercial databases and terrorist watch lists and then provide security personnel with the names of people to stop at airport checkpoints.

Privacy advocates have criticized Secure Flight as rife with potential for flaws and easy for terrorists to circumvent.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of Secure Flight’s most vocal critics, notes that commercial databases are notorious for containing flawed or outdated information. The government’s terrorist watch lists, too, have been found to contain the names of people who pose no known threat to national security.

Though little is known about the inner-workings of the Secure Flight proposal, it appears that a would-be terrorist could avoid scrutiny simply be purchasing a fake identity.

Responding to Chertoff’s recent statements, the ACLU noted that trials of "Secure Flight" have failed.

"It remains unclear -- even by the TSA’s own admission -- that the collection of massive amounts of personal information will make Secure Flight effective," ACLU legal counsel Timothy D. Sparapani said. "Instead of pushing for an expansion of Secure Flight -- which has yet to receive a passing grade -- the government should be focusing its efforts on proven security measures, like following leads and effectively screening passengers and cargo."

In June, the TSA revealed that it had collected and stored personal information about some airline flight passengers, in what civil rights groups charged was a violation of the 1974 Privacy Act.

On July 22, the Government Accountability Office sent a letter to Congress warning that the privacy safeguards in "Secure Flight" are insufficient. Furthermore, the letter noted, TSA misinformed the public about the extent of its private information-gathering efforts.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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