Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TSA Now Manages Watch-List Checking; Airlines Delighted to Be Rid of It

[Photo above: Jack Anderson at age 7 and his Mom, Christine. Little Jack is no longer automatically assumed to be a terrorist suspect, thanks to the completion of the TSA's Secure Flight program]

Assuming all goes according to plan (famous last words there), the administration of the infamous and widely misunderstood terrorist watch lists is now entirely in the hands of the TSA, in a program called Secure Flight designed to greatly reduce the scandalous number of false-positives that drive some travelers nuts at the checkpoints.

You know, like that little kid named Jack Anderson whose Mom was frantic every time they went to the airport because a Jack Anderson happened to be on the unholy mess that is the selectee portion of the watch list?

Well, the reason that kid always got the time-consuming third degree, along with thousands of others who share a name that matches or even resembles a real name on the selectee list, was that the process used to be in the hands of the airlines. Because of privacy concerns, the airlines had only the name of a passenger, and when someone booked a ticket and arrived at the airport, that name was helter-skelter checked against the secret watch lists that the FBI manages and shares with the TSA. I have spoken with Jack Anderson's Mom on several occasions over the years about this weirdness.

Bingo, Jack Anderson, starting at age 3, routinely got stopped and questioned. As did David Nelson, elderly son of Ozzie & Harriet, and untold numbers of others, many of whom I have heard from over the years.

Now, in a new program called Secure Flight (which the TSA said today has finally been completed), airlines collect names but also birthdates, gender and other personal information at time of booking, and dispatch this information to the TSA. Armed with more detail than just a name, the TSA then is able to check readily note that the child Jack Anderson is not the same person as the actual Jack Anderson on the watch-list. So the child Jack Anderson no longer rings an alarm when his Mom takes him to the airport.

Why an adult Jack Anderson is on the watch-list to begin with is strictly a matter of conjecture here. I'd bet my horse that Jack Anderson, the famous muckraking columnist, ended up on the list because his name was prominent on the infamous Nixon White House enemies list. Jack Anderson the columnist died some years ago, incidentally.

The watch lists comprise two sections. The smallest list is a "no-fly" list that has on it several thousand names and identifying information of actual suspected terrorists. Anyone on that list does not get on a plane, and if that person should show up at the checkpoint, the cops are called.

The other portion of the list, the selectee list, has about 400,000 identities on it, but it's a bureaucratic law-enforcement hodgepodge, a legacy data-dump from all of the myriad law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies, including state and local cops. There are not actually 400,000 people on that list, which is riddled with errors, repeat identities, aliases, and names that are only there because they were in some agency's file.

The FBI, to its credit, has tried to keep the list current and relevant, but it's been a daunting task. The TSA has also struggled with the issue, in face of protests about privacy.

Meanwhile, we have had years of routine hassling of totally innocent, and always baffled, people at the airport -- many of whom are under the mistaken impression that they are on a terrorist watch list, when in fact, they only have a name that approximates a name, or a friend of a name, ad infinitum ...

Airlines absolutely hated being caught in the middle in this mess. Now they're off the hook.

The TSA is now vetting 100 percent of passengers on flights within or bound for U.S. against watchlists. That was announced today -- a month ahead of schedule.

Ignore the absolutely typical media proof today of Bill Moyers axiom that journalists are paid to explain things they don't understand. Because actually, and as is well known by anyone paying attention, the TSA reached 100 percent watch list matching for all domestic airlines in June. All that's new is the early completion and adding the international flights.

From the TSA press release today:

"Under Secure Flight, [the TSA] prescreens passenger name, date of birth and gender against terrorist watchlists before passengers receive their boarding passes. In addition to facilitating secure travel for all passengers, the program helps prevent the misidentification of passengers who have names similar to individuals on government watchlists. Prior to Secure Flight, airlines held responsibility for checking passengers against watchlists."

(Removing the typical PR blather here from Janet Napolitano et al)

For months, as the program was moved into place, passengers have been required to provide their full name as it appears on the government ID they plan to use when traveling, date of birth and gender. The TSA says it will adhere to "strict protocols" to protect privacy, now that the airlines are giving it all of that infrmation about Americans' travel plans.

Which does bring up one small matter. Used to be that the airlines acquired only your name when you bought a ticket. (Members of frequent flier programs of course willingly provided more). Now they acquire personal information from everyone who buys a ticket. That information has value, obviously.

Just sayin'


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