A post in Schneier on Security spells out some of the implications of the Government Accountability Office report on the Transportation Security Agency's testing of Secure Flight.
Secure Flight is a disaster in every way. The TSA has been operating with complete disregard for the law or Congress. It has lied to pretty much everyone. And it is turning Secure Flight from a simple program to match airline passengers against terrorist watch lists into a complex program that compiles dossiers on passengers in order to give them some kind of score indicating the likelihood that they are a terrorist...
One, assuming that we need to implement a program of matching airline passengers with names on terrorism watch lists, Secure Flight is a major improvement -- in almost every way -- over what is currently in place. (And by this I mean the matching program, not any potential uses of commercial or other third-party data.)
Two, the security system surrounding Secure Flight is riddled with security holes. There are security problems with false IDs, ID verification, the ability to fly on someone else's ticket, airline procedures, etc.
Three, the urge to use this system for other things will be irresistible. It's just too easy to say: "As long as you've got this system that watches out for terrorists, how about also looking for this list of drug dealers...and by the way, we've got the Super Bowl to worry about too." Once Secure Flight gets built, all it'll take is a new law and we'll have a nationwide security checkpoint system.
And four, a program of matching airline passengers with names on terrorism watch lists is not making us appreciably safer, and is a lousy way to spend our security dollars...
My fear is that TSA has already decided that they’re going to use commercial data, regardless of any test results. And once you have commercial data, why not build a dossier on every passenger and give them a risk score? So we're back to CAPPS-II, the very system Congress killed last summer. Actually, we're very close to TIA (Total/Terrorism Information Awareness), that vast spy-on-everyone data-mining program that Congress killed in 2003 because it was just too invasive.
Secure Flight is a mess in lots of other ways, too. A March GAO report said that Secure Flight had not met nine out of the ten conditions mandated by Congress before TSA could spend money on implementing the program. (If you haven't read this report, it's pretty scathing.) The redress problem -- helping people who cannot fly because they share a name with a terrorist -- is not getting any better. And Secure Flight is behind schedule and over budget.
It's also a rogue program that is operating in flagrant disregard for the law. It can’t be killed completely; the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates that TSA implement a program of passenger prescreening. And until we have Secure Flight, airlines will still be matching passenger names with terrorist watch lists under the CAPPS-I program. But it needs some serious public scrutiny.