Building a Passenger Profile
Relying on advanced hardening of flight deck doors, closed circuit television of the passenger cabin to monitor disruptions, and with the addition of air marshals and security- trained flight attendants to control unruly passengers, TSA is ready to begin trying to predict in advance passengers who need additional security examinations.
Prior to 9/11, the FAA, federal security predecessor to the TSA, had worked with the nation’s air carriers on a Computer Assisted Passenger Pre Screening (CAPPS) program operated by the airlines to identify passengers of interest for additional searches. The CAPPS program relied upon profiles adopted to help identify potential terrorists and was successful in identifying eleven of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists as individuals who should have been subjected to, at the very least, more careful searches. Two of those identified hijackers were actually listed on the “No-Fly” list at the time and could have been prohibited from boarding their flights.
After 9/11, TSA added new criteria for the pre-screening of passengers which, due to its heavy emphasis on immutable human characteristics, race, gender etc., was met with strong objections from civil rights and minority organizations. Congress responded by demanding of TSA a profiling program that relied more upon sophisticated indicia of possible terrorist sympathies and involvement than racial, ethnic, religious or gender identification. In response to Congress’ concerns and its mandate to TSA to take over the airlines’ involvement in the passenger profiling program, TSA announced its Secure Flight program. The new program draws from several data bases in which the emphasis is on travel patterns, possible terrorist related activities and ties maintained in U.S. Government files,; as well as airline passenger travel history information, commercial files containing banking and other financial records, real estate holdings and credit ratings. All of these are considered relevant to tying individual travelers to potential terrorist involvement.
Passenger Name Records and Data Basis
A PNR, or Passenger Name Record, to the surprise of many travelers, is maintained by commercial airlines to provide characteristics of passengers on a given flight. The information in the record includes the passenger name, flight and itinerary information and may also show the form of payment, where and from whom the ticket was purchased , seat location and other information used by TSA in making decisions about the scope of additional screening that may be required. A decision to bar the traveler from flying may also be made from this information.
Thousands of Americans and foreign air travelers, from all walks of life and age categories, have been subjected to secondary searches in the nation’s commercial airports. After having been removed from the screening line, these passengers may be subjected to questioning about their trip while their carry-on baggage, already having been examined by x-ray, is subjected to a hand search. In some cases, shoes and other articles are swabbed and tested for bomb residue; selected passengers may even be examined by so called “puffer machines” which direct a blast of air at the passenger in an attempt to dislodge any bomb residue which may have adhered to outer-garments. An even more intrusive physical pat-down or possibly being subjected to a “back-scatter” examination in which outer clothing in penetrated electronically to produce a picture of any item being carried under a passenger’s clothing may be conducted to reveal a bomb belt , of the kind worn by suicide bombers. While these searches are usually described as random in nature, they may very well have been instigated by one of the many lists maintained by the federal government on potential terrorists at the Terrorist Screening Center which maintains a Terrorist Screening Data Base.
As TSA takes over the operational control of the No-Fly, Selectee and other suspected terrorism threat information sources from airlines, it will integrate the data with other government and private sector sources of information into a more accurate and efficient TSDB presumably to be used in the Secure Flight program to provide a more sophisticated system for selecting potential threats to commercial aviation.
Registered Passenger Program v. Secure Flight Program
While TSA remains under pressure to develop Secure Flight, it is also about to introduce behavioral profiling in forty of the nation’s larger airports in addition to its taking over the operational aspects of data collection on passengers from air carriers. Many innocent passengers have been subjected to special scrutiny because their names have appeared in error on lists identified with potential terrorist connections or activities. Some have simply been subjected to additional questioning and perhaps the need to show identification once again. In other cases, passengers of all ages have been subjected to additional searches; in some extraordinary cases, passengers have been barred from boarding flights until TSA is satisfied that they are not the person whose name appears on the No-Fly list. To avoid similar occurrences in the future, TSA has wisely slowed down implementation of its Secure Flight program to test its accuracy before a full scale implementation takes place. Congress would be wise to back off on its posturing for immediate implementation in favor of further assurances that the unnecessary mistreatment of passengers in the past is not repeated as TSA move forward with this new initiative.
While TSA works to refine its new pre-screening initiatives, the Registered Traveler Program, a private commercial operation with TSA support is also being tested on a voluntary basis in a limited number of airports. This program is set forth more fully in our blog of February 7th entitled Registered Traveler List. Under the program, passengers will be able to purchase a registered traveler card for abut $80 to $100 per year which will provide them access to expedited security services at participating airports as well as an opportunity to possibly avoid being placed on one of the government’s suspect lists. The faster processing through express lanes in airports is paid for by the commercial operator of the service who would offer Registered Traveler status in return for personal information of the kind to be secured by TSA without passenger consent in the future. The information secured under Registered Traveler will be approved by and provided to the TSA which would then approve the expedited handling of the passenger members. This program is also being given additional study by TSA during the test period.
Aviation Security and the War on Terrorism
Aviation security is the most expensive and important undertaking in the domestic war on terrorism to date. Because aviation security has been inextricably bound up in the events of 9/11, we have spent $18 billion dollars to build what was touted to be a “world-class” security system by the program’s architects. In our efforts to protect our commercial aviation system from a future devastating terrorist attack, a new federal bureaucracy to provide security for transportation in general was established in the Transportation Security Administration of the Department of Transportation and now an agency under the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, security protocols for the protection of 2.5 million daily air travelers in the United States have been established. It is now fitting and proper that we review those protocols to determine whether imposing limitations on privacy rights we have come to rely upon is appropriate to the national effort to identify the traveling habits of suspected terrorists among us. Does identifying an unarmed suspected terrorist traveling without weapons such as explosives or deadly chemicals, bio-toxins or radio-active materials justify the data mining of personal, financial and commercial information that is now planned for and in some cases already underway? Would we be better served by developing and employing better security on all levels at airports to search all passengers, workers and others with access to aircraft, baggage, and cargo than we are in trying to identify who among the millions who fly daily may be a terrorist, an ordinary criminal, or a deranged passenger bent on death and destruction?
The domestic war on terrorism is being waged by high profile law enforcement, intelligence and other federal and state agencies ranging from DMV’s to local labor departments and other licensing agencies that collect personal information. With so much information on citizens, residents and visitors to America being collected and analyzed independent of the efforts made to monitor air travelers, are these additional data mining initiatives diverting the focus of aviation security away from the much needed effort to identify explosives and other mass destruction weapons which may be introduced into the commercial aviation system? Will this effort prevent our development of much needed new search technologies as a result of dwindling resources?
Before we rely too heavily on personal data mined from PNRs, or assembled at the TCI for inclusion in the TSDB, or secured from commercial information banks, No-Fly lists, Selectee lists and Watch Lists to decide whether a passenger should be subjected to further questioning, intrusion into their property or on their person, government might be wise to reconsider the following:
- Who are what are we looking for?
- Why are we looking?
- What will we do it if we find it?
- What are the risks of failure?
- How is the data, from disparate sources, being gathered and assimilated into one comprehensive database?
- What predictive analytics are being utilized to analyze the comprehensive database and determine which passengers should be subject to additional screening.
In the meantime, let’s not once again be distracted from the goal of keeping dangerous weapons that can destroy an airliner in flight or aviation facilities on the ground from doing just that. Let’s not continue to fail to see the forest for the trees.