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Secure Flight in Holding Pattern

A government report, as well as its competing interpretations, has raised questions about when the latest passenger prescreening system for commercial flights will take wing. Secure Flight, the latest iteration of the scuttled Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II), must overcome several serious challenges, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “is making progress in the development and testing of Secure Flight and is attempting to build in more rigorous processes than those used for CAPPS II,” including the drafting of program oversight and program requirements documents, says GAO.

But TSA has not finalized these documents, according to the report, nor has it tested the system in a real-life environment. Until those tasks are accomplished, GAO writes, “it is uncertain whether Secure Flight will perform as intended, and whether it will be ready for initial operational deployment by August 2005.”

Other concerns are that the privacy rights of passengers will be infringed, that inaccurate data will bar passengers from flights, and that passengers wrongly kept off flights will lack redress. Similar problems dogged CAPPS II. In addition, the GAO auditors pointed out that no one has calculated the lifecycle costs of Secure Flight.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has interpreted the GAO report as putting a “halt” on Secure Flight, according to an ACLU statement. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), on the other hand, said in a release that Secure Flight “appears to be off to a better start than earlier versions” of passenger prescreening programs, especially in terms of greater transparency. Still, the concerns raised by the GAO suggest that Secure Flight won’t be ready come August, Leahy acknowledged.

IT security guru Bruce Schneier, who sits on a working group studying the security and privacy implications of Secure Flight, says that the program is a big improvement over CAPPS II. On his blog, Schneier wrote that “Secure Flight is a major improvement—in almost every way—over what is currently in place.” But that’s faint praise considering he also wrote that preflight passenger screening “is a lousy way to spend our security dollars.”

Schneier describes the security system surrounding Secure Flight as being porous, specifically in terms of the absence of real ID verification and the ability to fly on someone else’s ticket. Given that Congress has mandated such a system, however, many experts believe that Secure Flight will eventually come to pass.