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Flaws Found in Airline Screening Process

Blinding insights to the glaringly obvious: GAO says passenger screening inefficient, may violate privacy rights

U.S. government methods for airline passenger screening are flawed and may even violate individuals' privacy rights, according to a report issued today.

In a new report analyzing the Customs and Border Protection agency's security processes, the Government Accountability Office says the CBP has not done enough to inform passengers on how their personal information is being used. The CBP also needs to align its security efforts with those of the domestic Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and it needs to take better advantage of current risk management tools, the GAO says.

The CBP, which handles the security for passengers traveling in and out of the U.S., uses a system that matches an individual's personal information with a database of known terrorists, the GAO explains. But the agency has not yet completed reports that explain how it protects passengers' personal information during the matching process, nor has it adequately informed the public on how their personal information is being used, according to the report.

"CBP's current disclosures do not fully inform the public about all of its systems for prescreening aviation passenger information, nor do they explain how CBP combines data in the prescreening process, as required by law," the GAO report says. "As a result, passengers are not assured that their privacy is protected."

The Department of Homeland Security disagreed with the GAO's assessment of its privacy disclosure practices, at one point calling the GAO's findings "incorrect and without merit."

The privacy problem is just one of a number of flaws that the GAO report finds in the CBP security systems. The accountability office also takes the CBP to task for developing a screening system that is separate from the processes used by the TSA, which handles domestic security.

"If these two prescreening efforts are not coordinated with each other, air carriers and other stakeholders could be unnecessarily inconvenienced and experience potentially unavoidable costs," the GAO warns. The two agencies are working on a common portal for prescreening passengers on domestic and international flights, but they have not made some key decisions about the combined process, nor have they set a deadline for implementing it, the report states.

One of the systems under consideration for prescreening is Apis Quick Query, a real-time system that would screen passengers as they check in, rather than screening entire passenger manifests all at once before a flight. The AQQ system can screen a passenger against a database in about four seconds, the GAO says.

Like everyone else in the security industry, the GAO also is pushing the concept of risk assessment. The report encourages the CBP to expand its current Immigration Advisory Program (IAP), in which U.S. officials are placed in airports overseas to personally interview and assess the behavior of passengers believed to be high-risk.

In a limited two-year pilot, the IAP produced more than 700 no-board recommendations and seized more than 70 fraudulent documents, resulting in a savings of more than $1.1 million, the GAO says. The GAO urged the CBP to adopt the program more broadly in airports across the globe. Homeland Security said it is planning to expand the use of the program.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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