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TSA seizes pre-flight terrorist screening

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The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will soon take control of screening airline passengers against the country's terrorist watch list in a much-delayed bid to net less infants, Senators, and other innocent travelers.

Department of Homeland Security officials today unveiled a revised program for pre-departure screening to begin early 2009.

Dubbed the Secure Flight Final Rule, the DHS will transfer screening responsibilities from individual airlines to in-house government work. Secure Flight will also require airlines to collect a passenger's full name, date of birth, and gender when making an airline reservation, as opposed to the previous policy of comparing only a passenger's name against the government's terrorist watch list.

"Secure Flight is a critical tool that will further improve aviation security and fix the major customer service issue of watch list misidentifications, a frustratingly common occurrence for travelers under the existing airline-based system," said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Among the current system's more notable bungles is barring Senator Ted Kennedy, toddlers, and US Federal Air Marshals whose names resemble those on the watch list the airline was using. Airlines often don't keep their lists up-to-date, and the management of the government's list itself has also been under fire.

The government claims it will keep the information it collects private. But apparently the move will also keep civilian eyes away from the list itself too.

"Secure Flight will improve security by maintaining the confidentiality of the government's watch list information while fully protecting passengers' privacy and civil liberties," said TSA Administrator Kip Hawley. "Ensuring privacy has been a cornerstone of this program and TSA has developed a comprehensive privacy plan to incorporate privacy laws and practices into all areas of Secure Flight."

TSA said it will retrieve information on each passenger, scan against the list, then send the results back to airlines. Data retention for "the vast majority" of individuals will be kept no more than seven days.

The program will roll out in two phases. TSA will initially take control of watch list screening for domestic flights beginning early 2009. Towards the end of next year, the agency will assume control of watch list matching for international flights.

Full text for the Secure Flight Final Rule is available here by the TSA as a 195-page PDF. ®

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