Millions more travelers could be flagged for intensive airport searches under a new computerized profiling system planned by the government, The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.
“Everyone who flies will be affected by this in a very serious way,” David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said at a joint news conference with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Keene said he had been told at a private briefing by the head of the Transportation Security Administration that an estimated 8% of the 2.5 million passengers boarding commercial flights each day would be classified as posing an “unknown risk” and asked to step aside for additional searches.
Because many passengers fly often, 8% of those boarding on any given day could translate into at least 6.5 million in the course of a year, according to a Times analysis of Transportation Department statistics.
“It’s a flawed premise that to catch terrorists you have to spy on law-abiding Americans,” said Laura W. Murphy, the ACLU’s top Washington lobbyist.
TSA officials defended the profiling system, saying the government has no intention of unfairly stigmatizing citizens and is trying to conduct the checks with minimal intrusion on travelers’ privacy.
“We will be looking long and hard at the reason those folks are selected for screening,” said Nuala O’Connor Kelly, TSA’s chief privacy officer.
Under the screening program, every passenger would provide his or her name, birth date, home address and home phone number when making an airline reservation.
Commercial database companies would check that information and report back to the government a “score” indicating the likelihood that the passenger is who he or she claims to be.
The government would then run the passenger information through classified national security and law enforcement databases to determine whether the person could be a known terrorist or have links to terrorists.
As a result of the check, each passenger would be assigned a “risk score” of high, unknown or low, usually referred to as red, yellow or green.
Red, or high-risk, travelers might face an unscheduled appointment with FBI agents when they arrive at the airport, if not before. Keene said TSA chief James Loy told him the agency expects about 400 to 500 of these travelers a year.
Low-risk travelers would undergo routine checks, putting their carry-on items in the X-ray machine and passing through the metal detector.
But civil liberties advocates said they were concerned about the middle group, those placed in the yellow, or “unknown risk,” category and subject to closer searches. In addition to those passengers, TSA would pick others at random for closer searches, as is now done.