Secure Flight, the planned next-generation system for screening airline passengers, has been mothballed by the Transportation Security Administration, according to an AP story by Leslie Miller. TSA chief Kip Hawley cited security concerns and questions about the program’s overall direction.
Last year I served on the Secure Flight Working Group, a committee of outside technology and privacy experts asked by the TSA to give feedback on Secure Flight. After hearing about plans for Secure Flight, I was convinced that TSA didn’t have a clear idea of what the program was supposed to be doing or how it would work. This is essentially what later government studies of the program found. Here’s the AP story:
Nearly four years and $200 million after the program was put into operation, Hawley said last month that the agency hadn’t yet determined precisely how it would work.
Government auditors gave the project failing grades – twice – and rebuked its authors for secretly obtaining personal information about airline passengers.
The sad part of this is that Secure Flight seems to have started out as a simpler program that would have made sense to deploy.
Today, airlines are given a no-fly list and a watch-list, which they are asked to check against their passenger lists. There are obvious security drawbacks to distributing the lists to airlines – a malicious airline employee with access to the lists could leak them to the bad guys. The 9/11 Commission recommended keeping the lists within the government, and having the government check passengers’ names against the lists.
A program designed to do just that would have been a good idea. There would still be design issues to work out. For example, false matches are now handled by airline ticket agents, but that function would probably have to moved into the government too, which would raise some logistical issues. There would be privacy worries, but they could be handled with good design and oversight.
Instead of sticking to this more modest plan, Secure Flight became a vehicle for pie-in-the-sky plans about data mining and automatic identification of terrorists from consumer databases. As the program’s goals grew more ambitious and collided with practical design and deployment challenges, the program lost focus and seemed to have a different rationale and plan from one month to the next.
What happens now is predictable. The program will officially die but will actually be reincarnated with a new name. Congress has directed TSA to implement a program of this general type, so TSA really has no choice but to try again. Let’s hope that this time they make the hard choices they avoided last time, and end up with a simpler program that solves the easier problems first.
(Fellow Working Group member Lauren Gelman offers has a similar take on this story. Another member, Bruce Schneier, has also blogged extensively about Secure Flight.)