Senate Panel Probes TSA Role In Data-Mining Project

It has sent a letter asking for copies of any communications between the agency and JetBlue Airways related to the experimental Defense Department project.
The Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee is investigating the role that the Transportation Security Administration may have played in compelling JetBlue Airways to provide passenger name records for an experimental Defense Department data-mining project. The committee has sent a letter to Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, calling for copies of any written communications from TSA to JetBlue related to the Defense Department's project and, if any such communications exist, an explanation as to why Congress didn't know about them.

Last September, JetBlue acknowledged that it had provided Pentagon contractor Torch Concepts with information on more than 1 million passengers to help test database software for identifying potential terrorists. What's less clear now is whether JetBlue was contacted directly by TSA and asked to turn over the passenger data without first notifying the public. TSA couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

Airlines had been reluctant to provide Torch Concepts with data about their passengers' names, addresses, and phone numbers without TSA's approval, according to the Governmental Affairs Committee's letter, sent Friday and signed by chairman Susan Collins and committee member Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. "It is our understanding that TSA did provide such an approval in the form of a written request to JetBlue asking the airline to provide &$91;passenger name records&$93; data to Torch Concepts," the letter states.

The committee is concerned that some of the technology being developed to provide homeland security doesn't properly ensure the privacy of personal information and isn't being developed "in an atmosphere of openness and trust," the letter says. "If TSA's involvement in the JetBlue incident is greater than previously acknowledged, then TSA needs to fully disclose its actions and swiftly move to reassure the public that it will act with greater concern for privacy rights in the future."

Nuala Kelly, the Homeland Security Department's chief privacy officer, plans soon to issue a report regarding her department's investigation into JetBlue's disclosure of passenger data, a Governmental Affairs Committee spokeswoman says.

The committee's letter comes on the heels of a General Accounting Office report indicating the second iteration of the Homeland Security Department's Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening program, known as CAPPS II, failed to meet seven of the eight requirements Congress mandated before providing the program with additional funding.

Airlines are watching the government's anti-terrorism initiatives with interest. At least one says it's too early to weigh in on the government's progress and how it will affect airlines. "We're still gathering information," says a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines. "If and when the CAPPS II system and the components that are part of that become functional, Southwest will do what it needs to do to participate in a way that is legal." She says law-enforcement requests for passenger information require a subpoena.

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