Aviation screening system based on risk assessment raises issues

Travelers’ personal data use questioned

New York TimesMarch 11, 2013 


John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, introduces new guidelines at an aviation security conference in New York, March 5, 2013. Pistole said last week that small knives would be allowed on carry-on bags, as Aviation security leaders are moving forward with plans to shift toward a risk-based system of passenger screening.


Aviation security leaders are moving forward with plans to shift toward a risk-based system of passenger screening – an idea supported by the travel industry and government officials who want screeners to focus on travelers who may present a security threat.

But as details emerge on how governments and airlines plan to distinguish between “trusted travelers” eligible for lighter screening and those who will receive more scrutiny, civil liberties groups and some European regulators are questioning the use of vast quantities of personal data to decide which travelers to examine more closely – or to prevent from flying at all.

Collecting and sharing information on passengers is at the heart of the new effort, discussed at an aviation security conference in Brooklyn last week attended by Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, and security officials from around the globe. The information governments use to vet passengers includes data individuals have volunteered by applying for trusted traveler programs, as well as information gathered through terrorist watch lists, criminal background checks and border checkpoint encounters.

The risk-based approach also extends to the list of items prohibited from the cabin, which the Transportation Security Administration recently revised to allow small pocketknives.

As the focus turns more to identifying suspect travelers, not just suspect items, the government also is looking at data that airlines and travel agents have collected on their customers, ranging from birth dates and passport numbers to potentially confidential details apparent in travel itineraries (like a flight to Pakistan) and group discount codes (for a trip to a conference, for instance).

For passengers on international flights, much of the data in these “passenger name records” is already shared with the Department of Homeland Security, although the agency has agreed to filter out certain records, like a traveler’s kosher or halal meal preference – a potential indicator of religion – barring “exceptional circumstances.”

But the prospect of using passenger data not just for border control, but also to make airport screening decisions, exposed a fissure between more privacy-oriented European officials and their American counterparts.

Peter Schaar, the federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information in Germany, said during a panel at the conference that any system that uses passenger data to assess the security risk posed by an individual should have to meet three criteria: It must be proved to be effective at rooting out terrorists; it must be proportional to that goal, without violating privacy rights; and it must avoid negative side effects, like discrimination.

“I question whether these proposals meet at least one of those,” he said.

That perspective was in the minority at the event, organized by the International Air Transport Association and largely attended by screening equipment manufacturers, airline and airport security directors and government officials eager to move ahead – despite budget constraints – with what they called the passenger differentiation concept.

The TSA also plans to focus more on devices that could do catastrophic damage to an aircraft. John Pistole, the agency’s administrator, announced that small pocketknives and some sports equipment would be allowed in carry-on bags beginning April 25 – an effort to more closely align American rules with European standards. The U.S. government also would like to expand its use of behavior detection officers who question passengers in security lines, a technique used in Israel, but the Government Accountability Office has faulted the way the program was carried out in the United States, saying it did not meet scientific standards of validation.

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