WASHINGTON – The federal agency in charge of aviation security collected extensive personal information about airline passengers even though Congress forbade it and officials said they wouldn't do it, according to documents obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
The Transportation Security Administration bought and is storing details about U.S. citizens who flew on commercial airlines in June 2004 as part of a test of a terrorist screening program called Secure Flight, the documents indicate.
"TSA is losing the public's trust," said Tim Sparapani, a privacy lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (search). "They have a repeated, consistent problem with doing one thing and then saying they did another."
The TSA and several airlines were embarrassed last year when it was revealed that airlines gave personal information on 12 million passengers to the government without the travelers' permission or knowledge. An inspector general's report found TSA misled the public about its role in acquiring the data.
Class-action lawsuits have been brought against airlines and government contractors for sharing their passengers' information. As a result, airlines agreed to turn over passenger data for testing only after they were ordered to do so by the government in November.
According to the documents, which will be published in the Federal Register this week, the TSA gave the data, known as passenger name records, to its contractor, Virginia-based EagleForce Associates. Passenger name records can include a variety of information, including name, address, phone number and credit card information.
EagleForce then compared the passenger name records with commercial data from three contractors that included first, last and middle names, home address and phone number, birth date, name suffix, second surname, spouse first name, gender, second address, third address, ZIP code and latitude and longitude of address. The reason for the comparison was to find out if the passenger name record data was accurate, according to the TSA.
EagleForce then produced CD-ROMs containing the information -- except for latitude and longitude and spouse's first name -- "and provided those CD-ROMs to TSA for use in watch list match testing," the documents said. TSA now stores that data.
According to previous official notices, TSA had said it would not store commercial data about airline passengers.
The Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the government from keeping a secret database. It also requires agencies to make official statements on the impact of their record keeping on privacy.
The TSA revealed its use of commercial data in a revised Privacy Act statement to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register.
"This is like creating an FBI file, not just some simple check, and then they're storing the data," said Sparapani, the ACLU attorney.
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said the program was being developed with a commitment to privacy, and that it was routine to change Privacy Act statements during testing.
"Secure Flight is built on an airtight privacy platform, and the GAO (Government Accountability Office) and Congress are providing close oversight every step of the way," Hatfield said. "The purpose of the testing is to define what the program will ultimately look like."
The TSA said it is protecting the data from theft and carefully restricting access to it.
Congress said no money could be spent to test such an identity verification system "until TSA has developed measures to determine the impact of such verification on aviation security and the Government Accountability Office has reported on its evaluation of the measures." That language was part of the Homeland Security Department spending bill, which became law Oct. 18.
The GAO issued its report on Secure Flight testing on March 28. The report gave the TSA a failing grade, saying the program hadn't met nine of 10 criteria that Congress said it must meet before being implemented.
Hatfield said appropriate congressional committees were briefed in December on the contract awarded to EagleForce on Feb. 22.
But Bruce Schneier, a security expert who serves on the TSA-appointed oversight panel for Secure Flight, said the agency was explicitly told not to try to verify passengers' identity with commercial data.
"They're doing what they want and they're working around any rules that exist," Schneier said.
Last week, the Homeland Security Department's chief privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, announced she's conducting an investigation of the TSA's use of commercial data for Secure Flight testing.