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TSA to brief Congress on using commercial data for passenger screening

ACLU throws curveball at airline screening program by highlighting strict congressional requirements.

The Transportation Security Administration has scheduled briefings with members of Congress and government auditors on how commercial data might be used to screen airline passengers for terrorist connections, an agency spokesman said Monday.

TSA will give in-person briefings to officials with House and Senate committees and the Government Accountability Office in "the coming days" on how personal information contained in commercial databases might be used in a new passenger prescreening system, according to TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield.

TSA is developing the system, known as Secure Flight, to check personal information on everyone who flies within the United States against watch lists of known or suspected terrorists kept by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. TSA plans to test Secure Flight in the coming weeks using old passenger name records from the nation's airlines. As part of the testing phase, TSA also will examine whether personal information in commercial databases can make the program more efficient.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been highly critical of Secure Flight, threw a curveball at the effort last week. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the ACLU highlighted strict measures that must be met before Secure Flight can be tested using commercial data.

The ACLU pointed to language in the DHS fiscal 2005 appropriations bill saying that no funds can be used to test "an identify verification system" that uses a nongovernmental database until "TSA has developed measures to determine the impact of such verification on aviation security and the Government Accountability Office has reported on its evaluation of the measures."

The ACLU asked Ridge for confirmation that testing of commercial data will not begin until GAO issues the required report. The letter was sent by Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project, and Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

"We raise this concern because we have seen numerous official statements of the TSA's intent to proceed with testing Secure Flight, including its commercial identity verification system component. Yet we have seen no mention of this statutory requirement," the letter states, adding that TSA has outlined "an extremely aggressive timetable" for implementing the program.

"We are concerned over how the GAO reporting requirement will fit into such an ambitious timetable. As you know, the ACLU has considerable doubts about the advisability of the Secure Flight project, and we are particularly worried about the use of commercial data."

Hatfield said TSA will meet the requirements before testing commercial data. He said the upcoming briefings will cover the impact of using commercial data on aviation security and passenger privacy.

"We are working hour by hour with GAO and the Hill to assure that we have all the necessary concurrences and approvals to get this testing going," he said.

Hatfield added that TSA could begin testing the program without using commercial data.

"At a minimum," he said, "we can still start the core program testing based on where we are today."