Questions raised about traveler screening programs

Published 17 January 2006

Remember the nine-month old Pennsylvania toddler who was not allowed to board a plane with her mother because her name was on the TSA No-Fly list? And Senator Ted Kennedy is still being pulled over every time he walks through a security line; who is on this list, anyway?

We reported in the past two weeks on two incidents raising questions about the efficacy and value of the No-Fly program which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has developed to make the sky safer. CAPPS and its replacement, Secure Flight — the No-Fly list is part of the latter — are programs aiming to check travelers against the 30,000 to 40,000 names on the government’s No-Fly list, and another 30,000 to 40,000 on its Selectee list. In one incident, a four-year old child in Texas was not allowed to get on the plane because his name appeared on the No-Fly list; in the other case, a nine-month old toddler in Pennsylvania faced the same problem when her name showed up in the list. In addition, 28,000 individuals whose names made it to the list successfully applied for their removal from it. Computer security maven Bruce Schneier (he is founder and CEO of Counterpane Internet Security) was a member of the government’s Secure Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security, so he should know. He writes that the No-Fly list is a strange creature, because it contains the names of people — names and aliases — who are too dangerous to be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent that they cannot be arrested, even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act. The Selectee list contains an equal number of travelers who must be searched extensively before they are allowed to fly.

Who are these people, anyway? The truth is, nobody knows. The lists come from the Terrorist Screening Database, a hodgepodge compiled in haste from a variety of sources, with no clear rules about who should be on it or how to get off it. The government is trying to clean up the lists, but — garbage in, garbage out — it is not having much success.

-read more in Schneier’s article