Privacy, security experts urge delay of passenger screening system

By Sarah Lai Stirland

September 22, 2005

Congress should stop plans to do a live test of a controversial airline passenger screening system until the Department of Homeland Security's top official provides more details about how it works and the program's privacy policies, a panel of privacy and security experts said in a report to be published Monday.

The department's Transportation Security Administration has said it plans to conduct live tests at the end of the year of the next-generation airline passenger screening system known as Secure Flight.

The proposed system has come under fire both from privacy advocates and the Justice Department's inspector general, who released a critical report earlier this month.

The panel of nine security and privacy experts, which included Princeton University computer science professor Edward Felten and Bruce Schneier, founder of the Internet security firm Counterpane, said in the report that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff should provide Congress with a signed, written statement on the goals of the project - goals that could only be changed on Chertoff's orders.

The department also should provide information on the technologies used in the Secure Flight program, how it works to achieve the stated goals, and what policies are in place to make sure that the stated goals are achieved. The panelists said they also want DHS to provide specifics on what information it collects about people, where the information comes from, how "it flows through the system," who has access to the information, and what the procedures are for its destruction.

"We believe live testing of Secure Flight should not commence until there has been adequate time to review, comment, and conduct a public debate on the additional documentation outlined above," said the report, a portion of which was obtained in advance by Technology Daily.

The report also provides recommendations on Secure Flight's future development in the areas of policy, regulatory and oversight structure, test uses of commercial data, the system's architecture, and the way it matches identities.

The report was discussed Thursday morning at a meeting convened by TSA's Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC.) The committee is composed of aviation industry associations, consumer rights organizations and labor unions, which provide feedback on administration policies through written reports. The work of the panelists -- called the Secure Flight Working Group -- was conducted on behalf of ASAC at the request of the TSA last year.

ASAC members received the report last Monday, and were asked by TSA officials at the meeting to vote on sending the report back immediately for review at the DHS' privacy office.

While some of the members said they did not have a chance to review the information, the committee agreed to send the report back to the privacy office immediately. Committee member Paul Hudson, founder of the independent public interest group the Aviation Consumer Action Project, obtained permission to send written comments for the record within 15 days.

"I certainly don't support the actions recommended at the end of [the report]. They would essentially be turning over the combination of the safe ... to the terrorists," he said.

By Sarah Lai Stirland

September 22, 2005