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Fri, Jan 20, 2006

TSA Frequent Flier Program To Begin June 20 Despite Concerns

"Registered Traveler" To Allow Easy Screening -- For A Price

Airline passengers may soon be able to breeze through security screening lines -- after submitting 10 fingerprints, having their credit histories and property records scrutinized, and paying a fee.

TSA officials told the Associated Press this week that, after testing the "Registered Traveler" program at five airports from summer 2004 through last September, the system is nearly ready. The TSA is expected to announce the program Friday.

TSA chief Kip Hawley said the program might mean registered cardholders wouldn't have to take their shoes off before going through screening, and may even be able to keep their laptops in their cases.

The program will be handled by private companies, which will only be able to sell Registered Traveler cards after proving to the TSA they have a method of somehow determining whether applicants pose a risk -- such as combing through bank records, insurance data and other personal information available commercially, or by some other method.

"It's finding everything out about that person so they're not some kind of unknown," said an anonymous official.

Critics to the program, however, say that puts the burden on private companies to essentially become law enforcement officers.

"I'm not sure that Registered Traveler should be a research program," said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, adding that the idea of using commercial data to sniff out a sleeper cell is shaky, at best.

Marcia Hofmann, an attorney with the privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the AP 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.

Critics have already attacked the TSA for obtaining passenger information without their knowledge -- often through commercial sources -- in its oft-maligned Secure Flight program. There is also concern such information could be corrupted -- or stolen, as was the case last year with data broker ChoicePoint Inc.

A security breach at that company resulted in thousands of identities being stolen, affecting some 1.2 million federal employees with Bank of America charge cards.

Commercial data brokering services -- the kind that Registered Traveler would rely on -- have already been proven by one outfit not to be up to the task of collecting needed information.

"We dropped the idea after fully testing it and finding that it had no security benefits and significant, almost show-stopping negatives," said representatives with Verified Identity Pass, a company already running a Registered Traveler test program in Orlando (FL), to the TSA.

Verified Identity Pass charges nearly $80 for their card.

Companies such as General Electric, ARINC and Iridian Technologies, however, believe they can handle those issues -- and say there's money to be made on Registered Traveler.

"Travelers want it," said Steve van Beek, spokesman for the airport group Airports Council International. "We can accommodate their desire for customer service and provide better security."

FMI: www.tsa.gov

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