TSA Toughens Registered Traveler Rules

By Leslie Miller
Associated Press
Saturday, January 21, 2006

Airline passengers who buy pre-approved security passes could have their credit histories and property records examined as part of the government's plan to turn over the Registered Traveler program to private companies.

The Transportation Security Administration said yesterday that the Registered Traveler card would let frequent fliers go through airport security lines more quickly if they pay a fee, pass government background checks and submit full sets of fingerprints. The program will begin June 20.

The agency announced that it would require companies to conduct more in-depth security background checks, for example, "by using commercial data specifically authorized by customers, or by other voluntary means."

TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter said the agency wants to be able to identify terrorists who are not already known to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

Companies interested in Registered Traveler were surprised by the requirement for additional kinds of background checks.

"This would have to be measured against the commitment to privacy," said Tom Blank, spokesman for the newly formed Voluntary Credentialing Industry Coalition. He said the group will analyze the new requirement.

"Until we see a little more, I don't want to say there's concerns or a stumbling block," said Blank, who was formerly acting deputy director of the TSA.

Carter Morris, who heads a group of 60 airports advocating the Registered Traveler program, said it remains to be seen whether the requirement will hamper it.

"It's a little early to say whether the whole program hangs in the balance," said Morris, who is the American Association of Airport Executives' senior vice president of transportation security policy. "The vendors are worried that it adds cost to their business model."

TSA Administrator Kip Hawley has said the program's benefits could include passengers not having to take their shoes or coats off or removing their laptops from their cases. It is intended to let frequent air passengers avoid delays and to free security screeners to focus on other travelers.

The TSA already has tested Registered Traveler at five airports beginning in the summer of 2004 through September 2005. Now it wants private companies to run the program, which was popular with frequent travelers.

Before the companies are allowed to sell Registered Traveler cards, they have to demonstrate that they can somehow figure out whether applicants are members of terrorist sleeper cells by plowing through bank records, insurance data and other personal information available commercially -- or by some other method.

James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the idea that commercial data can somehow be used to find a sleeper cell is highly speculative. "I'm not sure that Registered Traveler should be a research program," he said.

Privacy advocates have criticized the TSA in the past for obtaining airline passengers' personal data without their permission or knowledge, and for secretly collecting personal information on at least 250,000 people.

The agency was using the information to develop a program called Secure Flight that would check airline passengers' names against terrorist watch lists every time they boarded a plane. Unlike Secure Flight, people would be able to participate in Registered Traveler voluntarily.

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