Screening metrics need work, GAO says

GAO report on Aviation Security: Measures for Testing the Impact of Using Commercial Data for the Secure Flight Program

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Government Accountability Office officials released a report today on measures the Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration has developed for determining whether commercial data can improve airline passenger prescreening.

GAO officials concluded that TSA's initial work is inadequate for measuring the effectiveness of commercial data for prescreening passengers. Additional work is necessary, they said, before TSA's measures can be used for anything other than testing the concept of using commercial data, which agency officials expect to complete in April.

DHS and TSA officials will use those test results to develop policies for using commercial data in TSA's Secure Flight passenger prescreening program. Its purpose is to prescreen domestic airline passengers to identify known or suspected terrorists, a responsibility of commercial airlines that will shift to the agency.

In the 2005 Homeland Security Appropriations Act, lawmakers asked TSA officials to come up with the prescreening measures to minimize the number of false positives and false negatives, which raise privacy and civil liberties concerns. A false positive occurs when officials misidentify an individual after comparing passenger data to a terrorist watch list.

TSA officials will conduct tests to determine whether using personally identifiable commercial data -- such as names, addresses and telephone numbers -- can improve the prescreening process, which now relies almost exclusively on terrorist watch lists.

Secure Flight testing will occur in two phases. One tests how historical passenger data matches an expanded terrorist watch list. The other will determine if the use of personally identifiable commercial data can improve the prescreening process.

At the conclusion of both tests, TSA plans to award a contract to continue its development of the Secure Flight program. Overall system testing will begin in early June, according to the report.

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