Transportation agency in data flap with Alaskans

A government effort to stop terrorists from boarding aircraft may have bungled a mandatory process designed to protect passenger travel records and personal data.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been charged with developing a system to identify suspected terrorists by thoroughly screening airline passengers. But it may have destroyed some personal travel records and data despite being required by law to disclose the information to individuals who request it, according to correspondence exchanged between a lawyer and a member of the agency.

The screening system dubbed Secure Flight is scheduled to become operational by early 2006, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

In early May, Jim Harrison, an independent attorney for four Alaskans, asked TSA to disclose the kind of information the agency had compiled about his clients. All of them had traveled during June 2004.

"In Alaska, air travel is not a luxury, it's a necessity," Harrison said. "What it comes down to is that you have to take your identification and ask the federal government whether you can travel, and they either give you the thumbs up or the thumbs down with a system whose parameters are unknown."

In a reply to Harrison dated June 22, a TSA official said the agency could not find any records on the individuals. TSA on the same day published a notice in the Federal Register saying it would update its rules to release the passenger name records to individuals who had requested them under federal privacy law -- but that it had decided to destroy "certain copies of the original [records] provided by the air carriers."

The notice also said TSA planned to destroy the other records as it finishes its testing. The notice added that federal rules allow the agency to destroy the records. Prior TSA notices said that the agency wanted to do so because the records were being used only for tests and that the agency did not intend to track individuals' travel plans.

To test its system, TSA obtained commercial airlines' passenger name records for domestic travel during June 2004. It ran those names against a terrorism watch list and the travelers' personal data compiled by three commercial data aggregators. GAO in July said that practice violated privacy law because TSA had not adequately disclosed the extent of its activities.

Under the law, Americans can discover what kind of information the government is collecting about them, what is done with it and have a chance to correct errors. Government agencies must inform citizens of any changes of plans for using their personal information. GAO's report said the agency failed to fulfill those obligations.

In his letter to TSA, Harrison said the agency must retain the records. In an interview, he said his clients still want the data. "Can an agency just destroy the records and say 'sorry,' they don't have them anymore?" he asked.

TSA did not respond to a call for comment.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.