Secure Flight Re-Engineering Welcomed but Watchlist Problems Remain Unaddressed

October 22, 2008 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) improvements of the privacy protections in its Secure Flight program; however, the ACLU detailed significant problems that remain in the passenger prescreening program.

“The Department of Homeland Security has made substantial changes to the Secure Flight program in response to the concerns expressed by the civil liberties community,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “DHS will neither use commercial data to conduct background checks on travelers nor create a risk score for passengers through Secure Flight. DHS also is minimizing data collection to only necessary data elements and greatly reducing the length of data retention by expunging information on most travelers after seven days.”

Though DHS has made some positive changes in the final regulations, significant, unanswered questions still persist for Secure Flight’s implementation. One problem is the lack of adequate redress for individuals who are mistakenly matched to the secret government watch lists. Many innocent Americans, including Members of Congress, nuns, babies and other “suspicious characters,” have already been wrongly tagged by these secret lists.

Another unresolved problem is that Secure Flight is predicated upon secret, inaccurate government watch lists. These bloated lists have more than one million names, according to a tally maintained by the ACLU based upon the government’s own reported numbers for the size of the list.

“The current redress process must be completely revised,” added Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Currently, individuals who are wrongly matched to the watch lists send their documents to the redress office, but these innocent Americans rarely have their problems resolved. DHS’ Traveler Redress program has proven to be a black hole that sucks in documents and information from those misidentified but never emits a final resolution to help affected travelers get off the lists and stay off the lists.”

Timothy Sparapani, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel said, “What remains to be seen is whether the revisions to Secure Flight will really work. We suspect that although the government will do the vetting now, instead of the airlines, the failure to scrub the watch lists of hundreds of thousands of records of innocent, law-abiding passengers will result in still far too many mistakes and burdens for those travelers whose only crime is that their name is similar to somebody whom the government thinks is suspicious.” Sparapani reiterated, “Until we fix the watch lists, re-engineering Secure Flight is not enough.”

See the ACLU’s comments on the original Secure Flight rules:

For information about the government watch lists, go to:

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