Screening plan hits turbulent reaction

Department of Homeland Security seal

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: This has been and is a tough summer for airline travel. Planes are crowded. Delays are at record highs. And security lines seem only to be getting longer. The Department of Homeland Security came out today with the third edition of what's called Secure Flight, that's its passenger pre-screening program. Earlier versions had the government tapping into private consumer data — credit records, for example — by buying that information from commercial databases. A congressional study concluded the program couldn't ensure either privacy or accuracy, so today the government changed course. Marketplace's Bob Moon reports.


Bob Moon: The airlines are currently responsible for checking passengers against terrorist watch-lists. The new plan would transfer the task to the Transportation Security Administration.

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff confidently declared his reworked idea would not raise privacy concerns.

Michael Chertoff: It's not going to rely on collecting commercial data. It's not going to assign a risk score to passengers. It's not going to try to predict behavior.

Soon after he issued that assurance, a leading privacy rights advocate fired back:

Bill Scannell: The only possible purpose for Secure Flight is as a makework scheme for contractors.

Bill Scannell speaks for the nonprofit Identity Project. He doesn't buy Chertoff's recommendation that passengers can clear security easier if they volunteer their gender and birth date when they buy their plane tickets:

Chertoff: The whole point here is to help us get a little bit of information about identification so we can differentiate the innocent passenger from the person with the same name who happens to be on a watch-list.

Scannell: Clearly, Michael Chertoff believes that Osama bin Laden is going to travel from Detroit under his own name, sitting in row 13E, eating a special meal.

Bill Scannell's organization ridicules the government's so-called "Secure Flight" program with a website called Unsecureflight.com. He says Americans have a right to freely move about the country without having to present their papers — especially when being safe and sane doesn't require that.

Scannell: Under the Sane Security program, people are checked for weapons and explosives as they board the aircraft, their luggage is checked for explosives and to make sure their cargo is safe, and then they're allowed to board the plane.

Homeland Security plans to finalize its program after a public comment period, and implement the rules sometime next year.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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