An article in the New York Times reports that TSA is using an extensive range of records as it clears passengers to fly here in the USA. We know that the terrorism watch center is pinged to clear every passenger, but now there is another Department of Homeland Security (DHS) center that is being used to clear passengers, the Automated Targeting System. Where the Automated Targeting System gets its information, no one knows.
However, on the same day that the New York Times reported that everything from “tax identification number, past travel itineraries, property records, physical characteristics, and law enforcement or intelligence information” is used in determining who will fly or not fly and which citizens will be qualified for TSA’s new PreCheck program, TSA claimed it is only using the basic data collected from passengers when they make reservations.
Technically, TSA is not doing the background checks. TSA sends the name, sex and birth date back to DHS and the FBI to have the names screened against the Terrorism Watchlist and other intelligence information. According to Blogger Bob (October 22, 2013):
Prescreening of passengers is nothing new, and we are not using any new data to determine low risk passengers. Unfortunately, some have confused these programs, so we wanted to take this opportunity to make clear what we are not doing:
We are not expanding the type of information we use – again, we rely on the same security information passengers have been required to submit at time of booking for many years.
We are not using car registrations or employment information.
We are not using “private databases” – the info we rely on is the same info that passengers have provided for years when they book their flight.
TSA does not monitor a passenger’s length of stay in any location.
But, there is more to the screening than TSA actions. TSA can rightly claim that they are not the ones performing in-depth background checks — other departments within DHS do the background checks. According to the NY Times (October 22, 2013):
The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information.
The measures go beyond the background check the government has conducted for years, called Secure Flight, in which a passenger’s name, gender and date of birth are compared with terrorist watch lists. Now, the search includes using a traveler’s passport number, which is already used to screen people at the border, and other identifiers to access a system of databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
The official added that these rules consider things like an individual’s travel itinerary, length of stay abroad and type of travel document, like a passport. If an airline has a traveler’s passport number on file, it is required to share that information with the TSA, even for a domestic flight.
The agency also receives a code indicating a passenger is a member of the airline’s frequent-flier program and has access to details about past travel reservations, known as passenger name records.
At the heart of the expanded effort is a database called the Automated Targeting System, which is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and screens travelers entering the United States.
Data in the Automated Targeting System is used to decide who is placed on the no-fly list — thousands of people the United States government has banned from flying — and the selectee list, an unknown number of travelers who are required to undergo more in-depth screening… The TSA also maintains a PreCheck disqualification list, tracking people accused of violating security regulations, including disputes with checkpoint or airline staff members.
Much of this personal data is widely shared within the Department of Homeland Security and with other government agencies. Privacy notices for these databases note that the information may be shared with federal, state and local authorities; foreign governments; law enforcement and intelligence agencies — and in some cases, private companies for purposes unrelated to security or travel.
Are Homeland Security, the FBI and TSA going too far? My reaction is no. But there should be some system for passengers to see what information the government and the airlines are holding about them, if for no other reason than to be able to contest information or make sure it is correct.
This high tech data sharing has been going on for years regarding foreign visitors to the United States, but the amount of data collected, social media messages and emails collected by the current administration on American citizens is without precedent. Collecting travel data is only the tip of the data iceberg. The government and the airlines should come clean about the volumes of data that they hold.