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Travelers in Atlanta. (AP)

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ASK THIS | June 23, 2004

The government's new "Registered Traveler" pilot program allows the busy airline passenger to trade a lot of privacy for, maybe, a little less airport hassle. Good deal? Here are some questions to consider.

By Marc Rotenberg



Q: How specifically will the Transportation Security Agency decide who gets a registered traveler card? Say you give them your height and weight, mobile phone number, and where you've lived for the last five years -- and then you get turned down. Wouldn't you want to know why? The TSA will say it needs to keep its process secret to prevent abuse. But secrecy also enables abuse.


Q: What information will the TSA require from candidates for the registered traveler program, and who will have access to that information? Will the record ever be accessed for reasons unrelated to air travel?


Q: Will the registered travelers have access to their files? TSA will have a lot of information about registered travelers. Will the travelers be able to ensure that it is correct? Will the TSA release the specs for the card, the data formats, and the kind of information that is actually encoded on the card?


Q: Who are the vendors for this program and how much taxpayer money is being spent for the registered traveler pilot project? Are the vendors the same as those for US-VISIT, the program that requires most foreign visitors to provide fingerprints? And does that explain the use of some of the same biometrics for the two programs?


Q: What about those fingerprint and iris scan biometrics? TSA says that all those hi-tech devices will stay at the airports. But if the biometric ID system can be made to work easily, what stops the Trusted Traveler from becoming the Trusted Visitor at the federal office building, the Trusted Vacationer at the theme park, or the Trusted Sports Fan at the stadium? And can the Trusted Moviegoer be far behind?


Bonus Question:


Q: Why is Northwest Airlines offering only 1,000 bonus miles for enrollment? Fingerprints alone should be worth 5,000 bonus miles.


Almost a year ago, U.S. airlines assured the public that no personal information would be disclosed to law enforcement agencies. Just last month, we learned that Northwest Airline sent 6,000 CDs of customer data to the FBI for examination. Now, before we can decide whether to trust the airlines, the Transportation Security Administration is trying to decide whether it can trust us.

Transportation Security Agency
The TSA announced the registered traveler program in mid-June.

Department of Homeland Security Privacy Office

Air Travel Privacy
Resources from the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

NASA Documents
EPIC posted NASA documents describing Northwest Airlines's disclosure of passenger data.

Northwest Airlines Privacy Policy
Here is what Northwest says it will not do with its passenger data.

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