Why Secure Flight Won’t Make Us Safer

Supporters of the Secure Flight Program state that the ID requirement and the need for government permission for domestic air travelers to fly would make us safer by keeping the “bad guys” off planes. While Secure Flight would be effective in enabling surveillance and control of our movements, it would not improve security for two reasons: 1) identity-based security systems are basically flawed because they are so easily gamed; and, 2) the lists upon which the system is predicated are bloated, error-filled, and difficult to match against.

Problems with Identity-Based Security Systems in General

Identity-based security systems separate individuals into two groups: trusted and suspected. In this way, ID security systems are presumed to root out the bad guys. However, the problem with this system is that it gives criminals and terrorists incentive to be added to the trusted category.

Terrorists would simply choose to use members who have no previous connections to crime and therefore, not be in the suspected category. Or, if known criminals were used, it wouldn’t be hard for a criminal to buy a new, “clean” identity (complete with real ID documents with fake names), and use this “trusted” identity to be able to circumvent identity-based screening.

Security expert Bruce Schneier recently explained the problem with ID-based security systems:

Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, the D.C. snipers, the London subway bombers and most of the 9/11 terrorists weren’t on any list before they committed their terrorist acts. And if a terrorist wants to know if he’s on a list, the TSA has approved a convenient, $100 service that allows him to figure it out: the Clear program, which issues IDs to “trusted travelers” to speed them through security lines. Just apply for a Clear card; if you get one, you’re not on the list.

By simply trying to fly reveals whether one is on a list. By only using people cleared by the system itself to commit bad acts, the entire identity based security system becomes ineffective. The system easily gamed, yet our government won’t admit that and continues to spend billions and offer up our civil liberties in a useless sacrifice to the notion of security.

Problems with the Watch Lists

The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) maintains two terrorist watch lists, the “no-fly” and “selectee” lists. Individuals on the “no-fly” lists are deemed too dangerous to fly by the U.S. government. Individuals on the “selectee” lists must endure more invasive security screening before they are allowed to fly by the U.S. government. How individual names are added to the list is unknown. The government claims there is a redress process for individuals who are “mistakenly matched” to the watch lists, but it is cumbersome and opaque.

In a statement (pdf) for the record at a recent Congressional hearing on this topic, the Identity Project detailed the many problems associated with the watchlists. For example, “a nun, Senator Ted Kennedy, and former presidential candidate John Andersonhave all been wrongly deemed suspects. Several innocent individuals have filed lawsuitsin order try to stop the harassment they received when they attempt to fly commercially, including a licensed commercial pilot.”

The Identity Project also urged the Committee to investigate a recent scandal concerning the Transportation Security Administration’s creation of another database or watch list. We explained:

There were recent reports that the Transportation Security Administration was adding the names of innocent travelers to yet another secret database merely because the people lost, forgot, or refused to show identification to TSA officers at airport security. This bears repetition: The TSA added names of travelers (whom TSA allowed to pass through security) to a secret database for the crime of not showing identification to TSA officers.

In fact, by the Justice Department’s Inspector General reviewed (pdf) the Terrorist Screening Center in 2007 and found that the government’s watch lists remain filled with errors that the Inspector General said could obstruct the capture of terrorists. The Inspector General said the data collection and sharing structure helped cause “inaccurate and incomplete watch list records.” In fact, problems let to “several known or suspected terrorists” not being on the lists, though they should be. The Inspector General noted, “inaccurate, incomplete, and obsolete watch list information increases the chances of innocent persons being stopped or detained during an encounter because of being misidentified as a watch list identity.”

Secure Flight is premised upon these error-filled lists. Though they contain many problems, the watch lists continue to be used every day to delay and detain innocent travelers. Any watch list that is used as a basis for restriction of civil rights should be based on judicial orders, not secret determinations by faceless and unaccountable Terrorist Screening Center employees.