Aug 16 2009

Secure Flight: Frequently Asked Questions

There’s been a lot of confusing (and often confused) reporting recently about the TSA’s so-called “Secure Flight” scheme for surveillance and control of passengers on domestic U.S. airline flights, based on data mining of airline reservations and lifetime travel histories.

If you’re looking for answers, you might start with our FAQ about “Secure Flight”.

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that the TSA’s orders to the airlines to implement “Secure Flight”, setting out which airlines are required to do what, and when, are all contained in secret “Security Directives”.  So we have only the TSA’s press releases — which they have previously told us would “creat[e] public confusion” were the public actually to rely on them, and which have often proven to be lies anyway — as clues to what is really being required.

We do know, however, the essence of what the “Secure Flight” regulations actually require: the shift to a permssion-based system of control of domestic air travelers (similar to the shift already being made for international air travelers under the APIS regulations, and for land border crossings under the WHTI rules), with a default of, “No”.

In addition to the questions in our original our FAQ, recent news reports raise some additional questions worth answering:

  • Was the “Secure Flight” scheme “[b]orn out of recommendations from the 9/11 Commission” (NPR)? No. “Secure Flight” is the latest name for a program originally called “CAPPS-II”, which was conceived almost immediately after 9/11 and well before the 9/11 Commission was even appointed.  More importantly, “Secure Flight” is directly contrary to the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that, “The burden of proof for retaining a particular governmental power should be on the executive, to explain (a) that the power actually materially enhances security and (b) that there is adequate supervision of the executive’s use of the powers to ensure protection of civil liberties. If the power is granted, there must be adequate guidelines and oversight to properly confine its use…. [There should be a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to the guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties.”
  • Is “Secure Flight” a legal “requirement” (TSA press release)? No. Not only is “Secure Flight” (a) in violation of international treaties to which the U.S. is a party (Article 12 of the ICCPR provides in part that, “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement”) and (b) the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble”), but (c) the TSA has been expressly forbidden by Federal law from implementing “Secure Flight” “on other than a test basis” unless and until the GAO has certified that 10 specific criteria have been met.  The GAO has moved the goalposts set by Congress to certify that most of those criteria have, under clearly distorted interpretations, been met — but not yet all of them.  The assignment to each would-be passenger of a score of “cleared”, “inhibited”, or “not cleared” appears to violate the provision of the same law that, “None of the funds provided in this or any previous appropriations Act may be utilized to develop or test algorithms assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists.”  And “Secure Flight” also potentially violates restrictions on data mining. [Update: It appears that the TSA is interpreting the GAO’s statements as constituting the necessary certification, even though the GAO said that “Additional Actions Are Needed”.  According to Business Travel News, “‘There’s nothing more to be tested, and no more approvals we need,’ said program director Paul Leyh…. ‘All it is now is to start the implementation process.'”]
  • Can the TSA or the airline prevent you flying or impose other sanctions as a penalty for non-compliance with “Secure Flight” requirements such as providing my date of birth, gender, etc? No. [Not unless they can successfully claim that the GAO has made the necessary certification, and that “cleared”, “inhibited”, or “not cleared” is not a “risk score”.] The same law that prohibits the TSA from “deployment or implementation, on other than a test basis” of “Secure Flight” also provides that, “During the testing phase … no information gathered from passengers, foreign or domestic air carriers, or reservation systems may be used to screen aviation passengers, or delay or deny boarding to such passengers, except in instances where passenger names are matched to a government watch list.”

One thought on “Secure Flight: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Pingback: More FAQ’s about “Secure Flight” » Travel Insights 100

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