TSA exempts systems from Privacy Act

Transportation Security Administration officials are changing the Code of Federal Regulations to shield eight information systems from Privacy Act provisions.

Published in the Federal Register last week, the move allows TSA officials to withhold records about active investigations.

"As a government agency, TSA has

the responsibility

to make available public information," said Andrea Fuentes, spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, which includes TSA. The agency "also has a responsibility to protect sensitive security information that, if released, would put

the public in jeopardy or compromise

investigations."

Although the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) doesn't view the rule change as a clear violation of the Privacy Act, privacy advocates consider it part of a trend by DHS officials to claim more latitude in classifying information.

TSA officials cited eight systems for exemption, including ones that detail inspection systems for all transportation modes governed by TSA. But other systems — such as the General Legal Records System, which has data on many matters filed in the Office of the Chief Counsel — seem to imply a broader exemption.

System accuracy may also be at stake, according to EPIC general counsel David Sobel, who argued that people whose information is contained in the system won't be able to confirm that they are on the list or correct

inaccuracies.

In many ways this re-creates the conditions that led to the Privacy Act, said Peter Swire, who was the Clinton administration's chief counselor for privacy in the Office of Management and Budget.

The Privacy Act was created in 1974 to stop the collection of secret files about U.S. citizens by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. "The risk is that we're slipping back into the old patterns because of our renewed fears about domestic threats," said Swire, who teaches law at Ohio State University.

TSA's move follows a recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that TSA and FBI officials inappropriately withheld information to protect sensitive information regarding a no-fly list and other transportation watch lists.

Swire said that the Bush administration has changed course on the Freedom of Information Act by issuing guidance to agencies that favors more secrecy than the Justice Department supported during the tenure of former attorney general Janet Reno.

***

Privacy pass

The following are records systems at the Transportation Security Administration to be exempted from the Privacy Act:

Internal investigations.

Correspondence and matters tracking.

Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act records.

Federal flight deck officer.

Transportation workers employment investigations.

Transportation security enforcement.

Personnel background investigation files.

General legal records.

Source: Transportation Security Administration

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