The government's plan to develop a new way to screen airline passengers is running behind schedule and so far has not proved it can protect the privacy of travelers, a report by the Government Accountability Office said yesterday.
The Transportation Security Administration has accomplished one out of 10 items critical to developing Secure Flight, a program that aims to assess the risk posed by each airline passenger and determine the amount of screening for each at the checkpoint. The TSA said it plans to launch the program in August with two unidentified airlines. But the GAO report cast doubt on that schedule, saying the TSA has already slipped behind by four months, and many of the to-do items had not been completed.
"It is uncertain how well Secure Flight will perform or whether it will be ready for operational deployment by August 2005," the GAO report said.
Secure Flight plans to collect information about passengers from airlines or reservation companies 72 hours before each flight and compare passenger names and dates of birth against names on various "watch lists" of criminals or suspected terrorists. The TSA will then assign each passenger to one of three categories: Normal screening will allow passengers to continue through the security checkpoint; "selectees" will undergo more thorough screening such as pat-downs; and those who match the "no fly" list will not be allowed to continue to their flight. The TSA said the program will eliminate the embarrassing and frustrating mismatches that now occur when innocent travelers are confused with people whose names are on the government watch lists.
But so far, the GAO said the TSA's testing of Secure Flight has not proved that it will eliminate so-called "false positives," nor has it explained how the program will be administered on overseas flights, particularly those in Europe where foreign airlines are prevented from sharing information with the U.S. government.
TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said the report comes in the eighth month of a 14-month process and that the agency still hopes to launch Secure Flight in August. The agency generally concurred with the GAO's findings. Preliminary tests of the program, which began earlier this year, "not only confirmed all of TSA's hypotheses, but demonstrated key aspects of functionality" of the program, Clark said.
Opponents of the program heralded the report as proof that Secure Flight is beset by too many operational hurdles. The GAO said the TSA is working to make progress on some fronts, such as establishing an internal oversight board, but "key system testing . . . has not been completed."
Timothy Sparapani, an ACLU legislative counsel, said the TSA cannot move ahead until the GAO certifies that the agency has completed each of the 10 task items, which include installing security systems to protect Secure Flight from unauthorized use. "If GAO is giving this thing a grade report, it's not A,B, C, D, F. It's incomplete," Sparapani said. "GAO can't even reach full conclusions because the TSA has so much more work to do."