WASHINGTON – The government announced Thursday it is taking over the task of checking the names of airline passengers against terrorism watch lists (search), saying it can do a more comprehensive and secure job than carriers.
The new system is intended to verify the identity of domestic travelers by amassing information that passengers have given airlines and comparing it with records in government databases. The goal is to better screen travelers by using a larger pool of suspected terrorists than airlines had access to.
The government does not now provide airlines with complete terrorist lists for fear that such information could fall into the hands of U.S. foes, said David Stone, chief of the Transportation Security Administration (search).
"We will have the database under the umbrella of the government so we can have enhanced security and not have the release of the names into arenas where enemies can access them," Stone told reporters in a conference call.
The new system, Secure Flight (search), is to begin testing in the next two months. It replaces a proposed screening operation derided by critics for failing to adequately ensure passengers' privacy.
But Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, said it will take a year to put Secure Flight in place after the testing. "I agree with the Sept. 11 commission there's been far too much delay," said Mica, R-Fla.
The government-run screening will not seek to identify anyone other than known or suspected terrorists. Nor will it assign a risk level to travelers.
Civil libertarians complained that the earlier system would use information on passengers gleaned from commercial databases.
The government said a very limited test of the new system will be done to see if comparing passenger information against such databases can help to more accurately verify people's identity.
Under Secure Flight, the government will gather information about travelers from data collection companies that service the banking, home mortgage and credit industries.
Marcia Hofmann, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said such verification can clear up confusion about people improperly flagged as possible terrorists.
She said the government still needs to put in safeguards so "there can be no abuse of information like that."
Airlines and commercial reservation services will provide an FBI-run center with passenger name records. That can include credit card numbers, travel reservation information, address, telephone number and meal requests, which can indicate a passenger's religion or ethnicity.
The Customs Service has used a similar method to screen passengers flying into or out of the United States.
After European countries raised privacy concerns, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge signed a treaty in May with 25 countries to protect passengers' privacy. The agreement limits the information that can be transferred and restricts the use of the information.
Stone said his agency will issue a public notice of similar protections for the Secure Flight program, as required by law.
Hofmann said privacy advocates are concerned because the system is based on lists created by the government.
"People who've been flagged by watch lists have had a great deal of difficulty getting off them," she said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John Lewis, R-Ga., said last week they had been mistaken for someone on a watch list or improperly selected for additional screening. Kennedy said it took him three weeks and calls to federal officials to get off the list.
Stone said that passengers who are wrongly flagged can ask the agency to fix the problem.
The agency plans to order the airlines next month to turn over historic passenger data so the system can be tested.
The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, said it supports a program to screen passengers. But carriers are concerned about passengers' privacy, the potential for delays at airports and the logistics, spokesman Jack Evans said.
"How do you bridge the gap between the various and sundry technologies that carriers use to collect this information and pipe it over to the government, and who pays for it?" Evans said.
The commission set up by Congress to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks recommended that the government take over passenger screening from the airlines.