Apr 27 2017

Is the TSA checking domestic airline passengers for warrants?

[Entities and data flows involved in decision-making (“vetting”) about travelers. Larger image, PDF with legend.]

The latest annual report on data-mining by the Department of Homeland Security contains a disturbing hint that the TSA may have gotten the ability to include checks for warrants and police “wants” in its “vetting” of passengers on domestic airline flights.

This would turn airline check-in counters and kiosks and TSA checkpoints for domestic air travel into dragnet suspicionless warrant checkpoints.

According to page 16 (page 19 of the PDF) of the newly-released 2016 DHS Data Mining Report, “An annex to this report containing Sensitive Security Information (SSI) about Secure Flight’s use of ATS-P is being provided separately to the Congress.”

What data from ATS, to which the TSA didn’t already have independent access,  is being used by the TSA as part of Secure Flight? For what purpose?

In the diagram above (larger image, PDF with legend), the solid green line shows the transfer of data from the FBI’s “National Criminal Information System” (NCIC) criminal history database to CBP’s “Automated Targeting System” (ATS) for use in “vetting” international airline passengers. The dashed green line shows the newly-disclosed transfer of ATS data to the “Secure Flight” system used by the TSA to “vet” domestic airline passengers. This could allow the TSA to check all domestic airline passengers for warrants and “wants” listed in NCIC, as CBP already has the ability to dos for all international airline passengers on flights to or from the US.

There is no explicit mention in the public portion of the DHS report of TSA use of NCIC data for decision-making (“vetting”) about domestic air travelers. But as the diagram above shows, almost all of the other data contained in ATS is already available directly to the TSA for use in Secure Flight. It’s not clear what data from ATS, other than criminal history data imported to ATS from NCIC, the TSA doesn’t already obtain directly without needing to get it from ATS.

Records of arrest warrants in NCIC are often inaccurate, as we have noted before. It’s especially common for the issuance of a warrant to be reported to the FBI for inclusion in NCIC, but for the later cancellation of that warrant not to be reported to NCIC. NCIC contains hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of listings for warrants that are no longer valid. Using TSA “vetting” of domestic airline passengers as a suspicionless dragnet for “wanted” individuals would inevitably result in the detention and arrest of many innocent people at TSA checkpoints on the basis of inaccurate NCIC data.

Normally, warrant checks are permissible only on the basis of reasonable articulable suspicion that a person has committed a crime. The current CBP checks of international travelers for warrants, police “wants”, and investigative “lookouts” have been permitted only as part of a judicially-created border exception to the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. There is no comparable “airport exception” to the 4th Amendment that would allow suspicionless dragnet warrant checks on domestic travelers by the TSA. Travel is not an inherently suspicious activity. It’s the exercise of a Constitutional and human right, and cannot in itself be the basis for warrant checks.

Members of Congress should look closely at the secret annex to the 2016 DHS Data Mining Report, and question the DHS and TSA as to whether they are using, or intend to use, data obtained from NCIC (directly or indirectly through ATS or otherwise) to conduct warrant checks on domestic air travelers.

If any of our readers has information about someone being identified for arrest on an outstanding warrant (valid or invalid) on the basis of TSA “screening”, rather than on the basis of an independent police warrant check based on reasonable suspicion, please let us know.

11 thoughts on “Is the TSA checking domestic airline passengers for warrants?

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  3. My personal opinion, I see it trying to head that way. They will try to find away to beat around the Constitutional Right for Domestic Travel, and check warrants on a lower level. There will be more lawsuits against all parties. One of the last places that we need a lower level warrant incident is at the airport.

  4. Unfortunately our so called rights in this “land of the free” are meaningless. The police do whatever they want (searches, civil asset forfeiture ECT.) If necessary they just amend a law later to justify it. We are definitely not free, and you can forget about the pursuit of happiness. If you commit the ultimate sin of ingesting a certain plant this country will make sure that you are stripped of everything you hold dear until you have enough and become an expat. (By the way Cambodia is a fantastic option) It all stems from this vicious war on drugs. It’s our own society that they’re tearing apart… Police should be heroes that should be trusted, but unfortunately prohibition makes everyone despise them. The law says that anybody can carry less than $10,000 on them but are allowed to take your money even if it is much less than that on a simple traffic stop, and make it nearly impossible to get it back. You’re not even allowed to transport your life savings to go and buy a car or a house in this country without the risk of the biggest gang we have here jacking you for it.

  5. Went through TSA in Atlanta and they stuck my license in a computer and it beeped, she said “supervisor” and gave me a sideways look. I got yelled at for trying to peep the screen and the supervisor gave me a look and said go ahead. I am 100% convinced that this was a result of my warrants.

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  8. I can speak from personal experience that NCIC *is* checked as part of Secure Flight. I had a warrant extraditable “east of the Mississippi.” I boarded a flight in Phoenix to Chicago without a problem, but when I went to board my connecting flight, I was meant by 2 CBP officers. On a subsequent trip, because the local PD had not cleared the warrant in their system, I was arrested again when attempting to board a flight out of Dulles, and then a third time (for the same reason, the issuing PD hadn’t cleared the warrant in NCIC) when I arrived back at Dulles. I note that my ultimate destination was outside of the country, which may have an impact.

  9. @Anonymous — If the itinerary in the PNR includes any international flight to, from, or via the US, the entire PNR including the details of *all* flights booked in the same PNR, including domestic US flights connecting to or from international flights and domestic US flights before or after stopovers, are transmitted to CBP.

  10. My bf was stopped by tsa prior to boarding a plane to aruba for his birthday for having an fta warrant in another county.

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