Secure Flight hits turbulence from feds

Secure Flight, the Transportation Security Administration's latest effort at creating a passenger-screening system, has run into heavy turbulence from federal regulators. But that hasn't grounded the agency’s intent to launch the program this summer.

The program received a one-two punch last month when both the Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department's inspector general issued reports within days of each other criticizing the program.

GAO officials are not certain whether the system will work, according to their March 28 report. "Until TSA finalizes key program documents and completes additional system testing, it is uncertain whether Secure Flight will perform as intended, and whether it will be ready for initial operational deployment by August," it states.

The March 25 DHS report, from Inspector General Richard Skinner, found that TSA officials failed to enforce privacy protections when they transferred airline data to the screening system that Secure Flight will in large part be based on.

Between February 2002 and June 2003, TSA transferred more than 12 million passenger records from at least six airlines to other agencies and their contractors working on the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) II, according to the report.

Although the inspector general found no evidence that any individual was harmed, the report states, TSA officials did not ensure that contractors involved in the work properly protected the data. And once information about the transfer was made public, initial explanations from TSA officials were often inaccurate, Skinner wrote.

In written comments included with both reports, TSA officials generally agreed with the GAO's and IG's assessments. TSA officials wrote that they are working to meet all project requirements for Secure Flight and still intend to meet the August deadline.

But the doubts expressed in GAO's report may hold those plans at the gate. As part of the fiscal 2005 budget, Congress mandated that before Secure Flight can start operating, DHS officials must prove to GAO that the program has addressed 10 critical concerns. Those areas of interest include creating effective oversight systems that protect passengers' privacy and giving passengers the power to amend incorrect information.

TSA’s missteps are hurting Americans, said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.). She said more than two-dozen of her constituents have complained that they have come up as false positives on the federal no-fly list, leading to delays. TSA officials have not given them any effective means to alter the list to prevent them from being stopped again, she said, which is one of the 10 congressional requirements for funding.

"They have to address this criteria," Sanchez said.

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