GAO: Secure Flight concerns remain

Government Accountability Office officials still have plenty of questions about Secure Flight, the Transportation Security Administration’s latest effort at creating a passenger screening system.

GAO officials are not certain if the system will perform as intended and overcome congressional concerns, according to a report released Monday.

“Until TSA finalizes key program documents and completes additional system testing, it is uncertain whether Secure Flight will perform as intended,” GAO officials wrote, “and whether it will be ready for initial operational deployment by August 2005.”

As part of the fiscal 2005 budget, Congress mandated that before Secure Flight can start operation, Homeland Security Department officials must prove to GAO that the program has addressed 10 critical concerns.

These areas of interest include creating oversight systems and information databases and testing their efficacy and accuracy. The screening system must also incorporate privacy protections for passengers and a process for passengers to amend incorrect information.

The report details TSA’s accomplishments but also points out that agency officials have not done enough in any of the 10 areas to satisfy Congress.

For example, TSA officials reported that they finished initial tests to accurately match passenger data from airlines with DHS’ terrorist-screening database, but GAO officials could not independently confirm TSA’s results.

TSA officials also have written draft versions of operations and oversight procedures, a requirements document, and a project schedule, but none of these documents have been finalized, GAO found.

And TSA officials have not approved a security plan or a risk assessment. They wrote an expenditure plan only recently and have not projected the cost of the program, the report stated.

Other areas of concern include stress testing of the system, contractor oversight and data quality.

In written comments included with the report, TSA officials generally agreed with GAO’s assessment and wrote that they are working to meet all project requirements.

But civil liberties advocates worry about Secure Flight’s lack of progress to meet congressionally mandated goals.

“It is quite clear that the TSA has not demonstrated that it will work and identify terrorists, or protect the privacy of passengers, or correct its mistakes,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Until it does, he said, “Secure Flight is not ready for takeoff.”

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