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Faulty 'No-Fly' System Detailed

Internal TSA memos direct airlines to refuse boarding to a passenger on the no-fly list and to alert the local FBI. Travelers on the selectee list are to be directed to a law enforcement officer and put through additional security procedures in order to board the plane, the documents said.

Airlines declined to say exactly what kind of technology they use to match names. But the documents make clear that in the months after Sept. 11, carriers were having difficulty with the task. The Air Transport Association, the airline trade group, met with the TSA's top policy director in December 2002 to address the "false positives problem," according to a TSA memo.


ACLU staff attorney Jayashri Srikantiah decries no-fly lists. Clients Jan Adams, right, and Rebecca Gordon sued the government after being detained. (Eric Risberg -- AP)

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"This has been such a headache for me," wrote one Alaska Airlines executive, whose name was redacted, in an e-mail to the TSA a week before the meeting. "Any solutions . . . would be greatly appreciated."

TSA officials wrote letters and e-mails of apology to passengers who complained of being mistakenly flagged by the lists. But in an internal memo, officials said there was little the agency could do.

"While a few carriers keep track of 'false positives' the majority do not," wrote Chad Wolf, now TSA's number-two policy official, in a December 2002 e-mail to agency legislative affairs official Cori Sieger. "Consequently, TSA does not have the ability to record this data nor is there a pressing need to do so."

Passengers are falsely flagged by the lists in such large numbers because of the kind of technology airlines use to compare the reservation lists to the watch lists, according to experts in name-matching technology. Each airline conducts the matches differently. Many major carriers use a system that strips the vowels from each passenger's name and assigns it a code based on the name's phonetic sound, according to the Air Transport Association.

The name-matching technology is "too simplistic for a very complex problem," said Jack Hermansen, co-founder of Language Analysis Systems Inc. in Herndon, a company that has a competing name-matching technology that factors in a name's cultural origin. "It's these accidental matches that cause the big problem."

The phonetic-code concept is traced back to a program called Soundex patented in 1918, which was used by Census Bureau officials to help sort out names that sounded similar but might be spelled differently. The name "Kennedy," for example, would be assigned the Soundex code K530, which is the same code assigned to Kemmet, Kenndey, Kent, Kimmet, Kimmett, Kindt and Knott, according to genealogy Web sites that use the technology. Today's systems are more sophisticated than Soundex, but they grew from the same origins, experts said.

"The reason this technology is used is you're really trying to protect against typing errors," said Steven Pollock, executive vice president at TuVox Inc., a company that sells speech-recognition software. "When someone types in a name, the problem and the challenge is people will spell names incorrectly. . . . Names are definitely the toughest things to get [right], no doubt about it."

But the phonetic coding systems tend to ensnare people who have similar-sounding names, even though a human being could tell the difference. Earlier this month, for example, Rep. Donald E. Young (R-Alaska), said he was flagged on the "watch list" when the airline computer system mistook him for a man on the list named Donald Lee Young.


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