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You may already be a suspect

Published September 27, 2003

Have you flown JetBlue in the last few years? If so, there is a good chance your personal data has been used to evaluate the feasibility of a new type of airline security program.

Last year, in violation of the company's own privacy policies, JetBlue provided 5-million passenger itineraries to Torch Concepts, a Huntsville, Ala., company doing work for the Pentagon. The revelation, reported in the online edition of Wired magazine, indicates that Torch Concepts used the data and combined it with other sensitive demographic information to test an airline passenger profiling and prescreening system similar to that currently under review by the Transportation Security Administration for use at airports across the country.

While JetBlue admits it shared this data, it did so, the company says, in response to a request from the Department of Defense to assist Torch Concepts with a project on the security of military bases. JetBlue says any other use of its data was unauthorized.

But the data was used to test a data-mining system that ostensibly teases out terrorist suspects from large computer databases of demographic information.

In a report titled "Homeland Security - Airline Passenger Risk Assessment," the company said it combined the JetBlue passenger database with demographic databases that included Social Security numbers, information on gender, income, home ownership, number of years at one's residence, number of children and vehicle records.

After the data was run, Torch Concepts said, passengers were largely distributed into three groups: younger, middle-income homeowners; older, higher-income homeowners and those with anomalous records. The report concludes that "known airline terrorists appear readily distinguishable from the normal JetBlue passenger patterns." It appears that the third group, which essentially includes everyone who rents rather than owns a home, would be under suspicion and subject to heightened scrutiny every time they flew.

The TSA has disavowed any involvement with the study. But the agency is currently testing its own data-mining airline security program known as the next generation Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System or CAPPS II. Under that system, each passenger will be risk assessed and rated either as a green, yellow or red threat level. The TSA says CAPPS II is not looking at things like income level and will use information collected by intelligence sources, but there is no guarantee that demographic databases, like those used in the Torch Concepts model, won't be included as well.

Companies such as Torch Concepts see big money in violating the privacy of the traveling public. The fact that the Defense Department helped Torch Concepts obtain JetBlue's passenger logs for a test of this invasive system is deeply troubling and calls for an internal investigation.

[Last modified September 27, 2003, 02:09:25]


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