DHS confirms JetBlue role

Homeland Security Department officials asked JetBlue Airways to give millions of records to an Army contractor because DHS hoped to get ideas for its air passenger screening system, a department official said this week.

DHS officials sought to explain to Congress their role in helping an Army contractor obtain vast quantities of sensitive airline passenger data from JetBlue Airways.

The admission comes after the Senate Government Affairs Committee's chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), requested information in February about how the Transportation Security Administration was involved. Giving information to a DHS contractor violated passengers' privacy, critics said.

"This report confirms our suspicions that the TSA was involved in this incident," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program. "When the government asks a heavily regulated company like an airline to hand over customer information, as TSA apparently did here, it's no surprise they complied."

An Army contractor, Torch Concepts, received millions of passenger name records so it could analyze traffic patterns near or on military facilities, according to Asa Hutchinson, Border and Transportation Security's undersecretary, in a letter to the senators. TSA hoped to get ideas from Torch Concepts to help formulate the highly controversial Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System intended for air travelers.

Homeland Security officials have an "unparalleled commitment to creating a culture that supports privacy values," Hutchinson wrote in a response to the senators. "Part of that commitment is to provide transparency about the department's operations and to implement appropriate procedures for data usage going forward."

The Defense Department's inspector general is expected to release a report, at the senators' request, detailing whether the Army contractor's acquisition of private passenger information from JetBlue adhered to the Privacy Act.

Steinhardt said that questions remain about why the U.S. military was involved in a project that he said amounted to surveillance of the activities of U.S. citizens. The ACLU has issued a Freedom of Information request.

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