A newly formed panel to advise the Department of Homeland Security on safeguarding citizen privacy in a post-Sept. 11 world was urged yesterday to investigate plans for a nationwide computer system to screen airline passengers.
Privacy advocates told the first meeting of the 20-member panel that the program, known as Secure Flight, amounts to government background checks on passengers by maintaining secret lists of information about tens of millions of Americans.
ChoicePoint Inc. has acknowledged that intruders hacked into its databases and gained access to personal data.
(John Bazemore -- AP)
Passenger data from airlines or reservation companies would be examined 72 hours before each flight and compared against "watch lists" of criminals or suspected terrorists that are collected by various law-enforcement agencies.
"It's an unprecedented government role, designating citizens as suspect" while making it difficult to correct the information if it is wrong, said David L. Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
To make matters worse, Sobel said, the Transportation Security Administration, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, "has been incredibly resistant" to providing the public with information about how the program is being formulated or how it will work. The TSA hopes to launch the program in late summer.
The advisory group, whose members include representatives of industry, academia and think tanks, was organized by Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer at the DHS.
The department oversees border crossings, customs and cyber-security, all of which involve potentially sensitive personal data.
The group stirred controversy when its members were announced, with critics charging that it lacked strong advocates for individual privacy and data security, and that it was tilted in favor of companies that profit from gathering and selling personal information about consumers, often to government agencies such as the DHS.
Yesterday's discussion focused on defining the group's mission.
Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital-policy-advocacy group, agreed with Sobel that Secure Flight provides the perfect case study for balancing the tensions of national security with privacy, the potential for government abuse and the process of information collected by the private sector making its way into government databases.