The government is asking airline travelers to give up potentially a huge amount of personal information for what, at this point at least, could be little more than shorter waits at airport security checkpoints.
The Transportation Security Administration announced details of the Registered Traveler Program on Friday, but officials said the benefits for travelers were still being worked out and might not include an exemption from security searches.
Under the voluntary program, which begins in June, travelers would have to submit fingerprints and allow officials to conduct in-depth background checks, including in some cases providing access to personal and financial histories, to prove they aren't terrorists.
The background checks would be done by private companies, the TSA said, raising concerns that companies would be in the business of intelligence-gathering.
If approved for the program, travelers would pay a fee, likely between $80 and $100, for a "smart card" that contained their digitized photo and fingerprints.
The cards would allow travelers to use special security lanes at airports. Airline passengers participating in a pilot program in Orlando, Fla., spent an average of just four seconds in security lines, compared with other passengers, who waited four minutes and 16 seconds.
“You pretty much just waltzed right to the front, you put your finger down or they scanned your iris and within a millisecond your own picture comes up and identifies you and you go through,” said Bill Connors, executive director of the National Business Travel Association, who participated in a pilot program at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
“Now you still go through the magnetometer and all that screening stuff,” Connors said, “but the big advantage is, you get to go to the front of the line, or as we used to say when we were kids, you get to take cuts.”
Iris scans, though part of the pilot program, won’t be part of the official program.
Nothing certain beyond shorter lines
But beyond the promise of shorter security lines, the TSA was vague in providing details of any additional benefits travelers would receive in exchange for giving up much of their privacy.
TSA chief Kip Hawley has said other benefits could include passengers not having to take their shoes or coats off or remove their laptops from their cases.
But on Friday a TSA official told MSNBC.com that “nothing has been decided about whether [registered travelers] will be allowed to forgo any of the current screening procedures.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the benefits are still being worked out.
The agency said in a statement that "benefits will change from time to time in order to make it more difficult for terrorists to anticipate our security activities. Further, TSA will not exempt Registered Traveler participants from random additional screening.”
Airports, however, could kick in special incentives for Registered Travelers, such as offering special parking or VIP lounges, said Lauren Stover, a TSA spokesperson. “Benefits may vary from airport to airport, depending on the scope of the program,” Stover said.
Despite the unanswered questions, Caleb Tiller, a spokesperson for the National Business Travelers Association predicted there are "a large number of people out there that are comfortable with the tradeoff of giving up personal information in return for convenience.
“And those that aren’t won’t participate and that’s fine,” Tiller said. Asked if he would enroll in the program, Tiller chuckled and said, “No, I don’t fly enough.”
Added Connors, the group's executive director, “We’ve been big proponents of this program because it’s an opt-in program; we don’t think this is anything we ought to force on anybody. And frankly, some of my members wouldn’t want to have anything to do with this because they feel strongly about their civil liberties, and I respect that. But I think the majority of my members and the majority of business travelers are extremely interested in this.”
Extensive background checks
The TSA also announced Friday that private companies would conduct the in-depth security background checks on travelers, for example, “by using commercial data specifically authorized by customers, or by other voluntary means.”
Before the companies are allowed to sell Registered Traveler cards, they have to demonstrate to the TSA that they can somehow figure out whether applicants are members of terrorist sleeper cells by plowing through bank records, insurance data and other personal information available commercially — or by some other method.
Credit histories, property, insurance, criminal and other records all would be open to scrutiny.
TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter said having private companies do the checks would help identify terrorists not already known to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.
But some companies that have expressed an interest in conducting the checks said they were surprised at the extent of the checks the TSA expected.
“This would have to be measured against the commitment to privacy,” said Tom Blank, president of the newly formed Voluntary Credentialing Industry Coalition.
“Until we see a little more, I don’t want to say there’s concerns or a stumbling block,” said Blank, who was formerly acting deputy director of the TSA.
Carter Morris, who heads a group of 60 airports that support the Registered Traveler program, said it remains to be seen whether the TSA's requirements will discourage business participation.
“It’s a little early to say whether the whole program hangs in the balance,” Morris said. “The vendors are worried that it adds cost to their business model.”
James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the idea that commercial data on travelers can somehow be used to find a sleeper cell is highly speculative.
“I’m not sure that Registered Traveler should be a research program,” Dempsey said.
Marcia Hofmann, an attorney with the privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, said it wasn’t clear whether federal privacy laws would apply to the program.
“It sounds like they want private companies to be in the business of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering,” Hofmann said.
Privacy advocates have criticized the TSA in the past for obtaining airline passengers’ personal data without their permission or knowledge and for secretly collecting personal information on at least 250,000 people.
The agency was using the information to develop a program called Secure Flight that would check airline passengers’ names against terrorist watch lists every time they boarded a plane.
Congress has kept a close eye on the use of commercial data in Secure Flight because of concerns that commercial data is often inaccurate and could unfairly tag an innocent person as a terrorist.
Last year, a security breach at the data broker ChoicePoint Inc. resulted in scores of identities being stolen; another data loss affected 1.2 million federal employees with Bank of America charge cards. The incidents prompted an outcry for more regulation of the commercial data brokering business, which buys and sells sensitive information about nearly every adult American.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.