Chertoff: Privacy fears not justified
USA Today | August 11 2005
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that Americans need to ease their concerns about turning over personal information to the government - especially if they want to fly safe from terrorism.
Chertoff said there is too much worry over a plan by the Transportation Security Administration to collect passengers' full names and birth dates before they board.
"The average American gives information up to get a CVS (drugstore discount) card that is far more in-depth than TSA's going to be looking at," Chertoff told reporters and editors at USA TODAY's headquarters in McLean, Va. "But I actually make that case that giving up a little bit more information protects privacy."
"Would you rather give up your address and date of birth to a secure database and not be pulled aside and questioned," he said, "or would you rather not give it up and have an increased likelihood that you're going to be called out of line and someone's going to do a secondary search of your bag and they're going to ask you a lot of personal questions in the full view of everybody else?"
Chertoff vowed to implement Secure Flight, a plan by the federal government to screen out potential terrorists by scrutinizing the backgrounds of passengers. Under the plan, passengers will be encouraged - but not required - to give their full names and birth dates when reserving a seat. The TSA hoped to begin testing Secure Flight this month but that timetable is in doubt.
The current system, in place since before the 9/11 attacks, requires airlines to do the background checks. Passengers must give only their last name and first initial to book a flight.
American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Tim Sparapani said collecting more information from passengers is a waste of time and money.
"The public does not get any advanced security by giving up more information," Sparapani said. Would-be hijackers can easily foil background checks, he said, by either keeping a clean criminal record or by stealing someone's identity. Money would be better spent on machines that detect plastic explosives on passengers or in bags, he said.
Chertoff acknowledged that "the privacy issue has become so sensitive," but he added that "we're still in a very primitive model of how we screen people." Millions of passengers get extra airport scrutiny or are barred from flights each year when their names resemble terrorism suspects.
"We need to start to move to ... a more precise model ... which I think would protect privacy more," Chertoff said. Personal data "can be very helpful in screening out false positives" that lead passengers to be questioned or searched.
Chertoff also strongly backed a program that gives special ID cards to people who provide extensive personal data and are certified by the government as having no terrorist ties or criminal warrants. "I would hope that eventually a large number of people find their way into a trusted or vetted traveler program that allows them to move much more readily in and out of the country and within the country," he said.
Secure Flight is the TSA's second effort to collect more information from fliers. Last summer, the agency killed a program known as CAPPS II amid concerns, some from within the TSA, that it was too intrusive