The federal government is finally beginning to take over the job of comparing U.S. airline passengers against its terrorist watchlist, more than six years after it announced its post-9/11 plans to relieve airlines of that duty.
Now four unnamed small airlines are uploading passenger lists to the Transportation Security Administration for comparison against the approximately 16,000 names on the TSA’s two watchlists, the agency announced this week.
The rest of the nation’s airlines will continue to compare passenger names themselves using the lists provided to them by the feds, until they too switch to the new method in the coming months and years.
The program, known as Secure Flight, will require all passengers to provide more information when booking a flight, including their date of birth and gender. Seventy-two hours before a flight, airlines begin sending that information to the TSA, which compares the data against lists of people suspected of being threats to aviation. The TSA then notes each person as a match, no-match or unsure.
Those that match either cannot fly or get extra screening, the no-matches are allowed to print boarding passes at home and via kiosks, while the unsures must clear their names at the airline counter.
The TSA is withholding the name of the test airlines for murky “security reasons” — likely a code word for bad publicity, but the airlines should be easily identifiable since they are likely the only ones asking for passengers’ dates of birth.
DHS estimates Secure Flight will cost passengers, the government and the airline industry more than $3 billion over 10 years.
The system is a far cry from what was originally imagined in 2003, when the feds proposed feeding public and private databases, including credit histories, into algorithms to determine each fliers’ terrorism score. After repeated privacy blunders, the feds ditched this model (known as Capps II) and re-branded the effort as Secure Flight.
Now the TSA plans to roll out the program to cover all domestic flights, and eventually all flights to the United States. The change will be expensive for airlines and travel agencies which will have to re-configure their systems to collect the extra data when booking flights.
The feds hope that taking over the watch list checking will reduce the number of mismatches and eliminate discrepancies between airlines, which each came up with their own methods for comparing names.
The lists’ size, murkiness and lack of identifying details have snagged thousands of non-terrorist citizens, who have faced Kafka-esque questioning and intrusive pat downs, simply because their name was similar to or exactly the same as a name on the watchlist.
TSA also hopes the switch will better help those who have applied to DHS TRIP for help with watchlist mismatches. Some 3,800 people a month ask for help, according to the TSA, and the lucky ones are given a “cleared” letter and a redress number to help prove they are not the terrorist the government is looking for.
The TSA now uses only a small subset of the nation’s consolidated watchlist, which at last public count had more than 700,000 names referring to some 400,000 unique individuals.
The TSA has never disclosed any statistics about how effective the lists are or pointed to a single arrest made because of them.
TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches referred questions about the lists’ effectiveness and makeup to the FBI, saying “TSA does not maintain the list and cannot add or remove any names.”