A proposed revamp of the US Department of Homeland Security air passenger screening programme offers improved privacy protections, but the agency still has a long way to go, said one privacy advocate.
DHS on Thursday announced initial plans for an overhaul of its Secure Flight program, with the agency no longer no longer assigning risk scores to passengers or using predictive behavior technology, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a press conference. But the Transportation Security Administration, part of DHS, will have direct control of checking domestic passenger lists against terrorist watch lists, instead of the airlines, Chertoff said.
"Unfortunately, as a lot of travelers know, this process sometimes leads to inconsistencies in how the list is checked and how it's maintained by the airlines, and the result of that is frustration for travelers," Chertoff said.
DHS has "made progress" on privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of privacy advocacy group the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). DHS is right to focus on matching passenger names to terrorist watch lists instead of trying to predict behavior, he said.
"Instead of open-ended profiling… the revamped Secure Flight focuses on the problem at hand," he said.
But privacy problems remain, Rotenberg added. Air passengers still cannot see the reasons why they're targeted for extensive searches or kept off flights, and they cannot correct bad information on the terrorist watch lists, he said. "The problems with the watch list are still valid and are not going away," he said.
Chertoff, during his press conference, defended the programme. "I want to be very straightforward about this: Secure Flight will not do any harm to personal privacy," he said. "It's not going to rely on collecting commercial data; it's not going to assign a risk score to passengers; it's not going to try to predict behavior. It's only designed to collect a minimum amount of personal identifying information so that we can do an effective job of matching the traveler to a person whose name and identity is on a watch list."
The DHS announcement is one of the first steps toward resurrecting the Secure Flight program. In February 2006, the programme was suspended for a review of its information security measures after two government reports outlined security and privacy problems.