Senators Call on TSA to Explain Its Role in Obtaining Sensitive Airline Passenger Information

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman (D-CT) today called on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to explain its role in obtaining sensitive airline passenger information from JetBlue for a Defense Department database project.

In a letter sent today to Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security, the Senators wrote, “Press reports have indicated that TSA was involved in the transfer of millions of Passenger Name Records (PNR) to the Army contractor. Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has indicated that TSA’s role was limited, it has come to our attention that this may not have been the case. Army officials recently indicated to Committee staff that airlines were reluctant to provide PNR data to Torch Concepts without TSA’s approval. It is our understanding that TSA did provide such approval in the form of a written request to JetBlue asking the airline to provide PNR data to Torch Concepts.”

In October, the Senators 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 the 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. The DOD Inspector General’s office has been investigating the incident since last November. Since that time, it appears that TSA may also have encouraged the actual data exchange.

“If our understanding is correct, it raises several privacy-related concerns. We support the development of effective new systems and technologies to protect homeland and national security. However, such systems must have appropriate safeguards to ensure the privacy of personal information and must be developed in an atmosphere of openness and public trust. If TSA’s involvement in the JetBlue incident is greater than previously acknowledged, then TSA needs to fully disclose its actions and swiftly move to reassure the public that it will act with greater concern for privacy rights in the future. This is especially important given that, in order to test and implement the new Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), TSA will likely need to compel airlines to turn over PNR data. Americans, in turn, need to know that TSA will be forthright in how it handles information about them. That reassurance can only come following a complete public accounting of TSA’s role in the JetBlue incident. Americans want to be full partners with their government in the war against terrorism. If the government needs their private information to help wage that war, then they deserve to know how the government obtained and will be using that information,” the Senators wrote.

Specifically, 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.