GAO Fails to Green-Light Controversial Secure Flight Program; ACLU Points to Recent Privacy Failures of Agency

March 28, 2005

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Media@dcaclu.org

WASHINGTON - In its much-anticipated review of the controversial Secure Flight passenger-screening program, the Government Accountability Office today effectively put a halt on the Transportation Security Administration's screening program.

"The government itself found that Secure Flight is not ready for take-off and should be held at the gate," said Timothy Sparapani, an ACLU legislative counsel.

"This review, mandated by Congress, effectively stops the launch of Secure Flight," Sparapani said. "Of the 10 areas that Congress asked the GAO to evaluate, the TSA has only addressed one. Because so little progress has been made, the GAO cannot certify the program and TSA cannot launch Secure Flight."

TSA was expected to launch Secure Flight in August. However, the GAO report shows that this program is behind schedule, that its core components - such as the ability to match airline data against watch lists and the reliability of those watch lists - remain uncertain, its privacy impact cannot be determined, and that its ultimate financial cost has not been calculated.

The GAO noted that TSA has not addressed the identity theft problem, which as the American Civil Liberties Union has repeatedly pointed out would render the whole program a meaningless Maginot Line.

"As we learned from the recent ChoicePoint identity theft scandal, it's still very easy to assume someone else's identity, and we're fooling ourselves if we think this program will make us safer," said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project.

Other key concerns that the GAO is reporting remain unaddressed are:

  • The use of PNR data to check against watch lists to determine who is a threat.
  • The accuracy of the terrorists watch lists "has not been fully determined."
  • TSA has not yet fully examined the privacy impacts of Secure Flight.

The current report comes on the heels of a February GAO report focused solely on Secure Flight's use of commercial databases such as ChoicePoint. In that report, the GAO found that the TSA had not developed successful measures by which to judge the performance of those commercial databases.

Just Friday, the TSA's own inspector general reported that the agency had deceived the public about its role in gathering the personal data of around 12 million air travelers to test Secure Flight. That finding only further proves that the agency is not capable of protecting and respecting privacy. That report found that the public, the media -- even Congress which has oversight of the TSA -- were all kept in the dark about this gross abuse of government power.

"Given the lack of basic knowledge and testing of whether this program is even workable, it is hard to see how it could possibly be worth setting in motion so soon," added Sparapani. "Just as it is possible for Americans to be both safe and free -- it is equally possible that if we are not careful we will end up with programs that make us neither safe nor free."

To read the GAO's review of the Secure Flight Program, go to:
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-356

For an explanation of Secure Flight and the ACLU's concerns, go to:
/secureflight

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