DHS Responds to Sens. Collins, Lieberman Request to Explain TSA’s Role in Obtaining Sensitive Airline Passenger Information

WASHINGTON, D.C.— In a letter to Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security, said the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) did play a role in obtaining sensitive airline passenger information from JetBlue.

In February, Senators Collins and Lieberman wrote to Under Secretary Hutchinson to determine whether TSA was involved in the transfer of millions of Passenger Name Records to an Army contractor. The Senators requested copies of any written communications from TSA to JetBlue Airways related to the Army’s research project conducted by Torch Concepts, as well as an explanation of why this information might not have been previously disclosed.

“In May or June 2002, the Department of Defense requested TSA’s assistance in obtaining airline passenger data for use by DOD’s subcontractor, Torch Concepts. TSA and DOD employees met with Torch Concepts at that time. Torch Concepts was engaged in a Base Security Enhancement Study, involving analyzing traffic patterns on or near military installations. TSA was interested in learning more about the Torch Concepts approach because TSA was actively considering various ideas for the ultimate concept for CAPPS II. The briefing on the Torch Concepts application gave TSA the opportunity to learn about a potential approach to aviation-passenger risk evaluation,” Hutchinson wrote.

“At the briefing, DOD asked for TSA’s assistance in obtaining PNR data that Torch Concepts needed to provide a proof of concept for its application. In a July 30, 2002 memorandum, TSA requested that JetBlue provide archived passenger data to the DOD. Except for an email from Torch confirming that it was arranging to receive the data, there is no record of any further communication to or from TSA on this matter and the results of the project do not appear to have been sent to TSA. As you know, the DHS Chief Privacy Officer recently issued a report on TSA’s involvement in this matter and has referred her findings to the DHS Inspector General for further review.

In his response, Hutchinson also reaffirmed his agency’s “unparalleled commitment to creating a culture that supports privacy values. …Part of that commitment is to provide transparency about the Department’s operations and to implement appropriate procedures for data usage going forward.”

In October 2003, the Senators also wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regarding an Army contractor’s acquisition of private passenger information from JetBlue Airways for a data mining research project. Specifically, they asked Rumsfeld to determine if DOD followed Privacy Act regulations by, among other things, publishing a notice regarding the system of records being created by the contractor and preventing unauthorized disclosures. DOD Inspector General’s office has been investigating the incident since last November, and a report is expected soon.