The Transportation Security Administration violated privacy protections by secretly collecting personal information on at least 250,000 people, congressional investigators said Friday.
The Government Accountability Office sent a letter to Congress saying the collection violated the Privacy Act, which prohibits the government from compiling information on people without their knowledge.
The information was collected as the agency tested a program, now called Secure Flight, to conduct computerized checks of airline passengers against terrorist watch lists.
TSA had promised it would only use the limited information about passengers that it had obtained from airlines. Instead, the agency and its contractors compiled files on people using data from commercial brokers and then compared those files with the lists.
The GAO reported that about 100 million records were collected.
The 1974 Privacy Act requires the government to notify the public when it collects information about people. It must say who it’s gathering information about, what kinds of information, why it’s being collected and how the information is stored.
And to protect people from having misinformation about them in their files, the government must also disclose how they can access and correct the data it has collected.
Before it began testing Secure Flight, the TSA published notices in September and November saying that it would collect from airlines information about people who flew commercially in June 2004.
Instead, the agency actually took 43,000 names of passengers and used about 200,000 variations of those names — who turned out to be real people who may not have flown that month, the GAO said. A TSA contractor collected 100 million records on those names.
Justin Oberman, the TSA official in charge of Secure Flight, said that was a highly instructive test.
“When you cannot distinguish one John Smith from another, you’re going to get records from John Smiths who aren’t boarding flights on an order of magnitude we can’t handle,” Oberman said.
He said the testing is designed to find out what kind of data airlines will need to get — such as passengers’ birthdates — so they can turn it over to the government to check against watch lists.
GAO: Agency shifted plans
The GAO letter said that the TSA also said originally that it wouldn’t use and store commercial data about airline passengers. It not only did that, it collected and stored information about the people with similar names.
“As a result, an unknown number of individuals whose personal information was collected were not notified as to how they might access or amend their personal data,” the letter said.
It was only after meeting with the GAO, which is overseeing the program, that the TSA published a second notice indicating that it would do the things it had earlier said it wouldn’t do.
Oberman said it’s not unusual to revise such notices.
“We are conducting a test,” he said. “I didn’t know what the permutations would be.”
Oberman also said that the test has no impact on anyone who travels and that the data will be destroyed when the test is over.
Friday’s GAO letter shed new light on how the TSA expanded the testing of Secure Flight well beyond its original scope and why it had to publish the second notice.
The letter drew a sharp rebuke from Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and the ranking Democrat, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff dated Friday.
“Careless missteps such as this jeopardize the public trust and DHS’ ability to deploy a much-needed, new system,” the letter said, citing the project’s “unfortunate history.”