Tens of thousands mistakenly matched to terrorist watch lists

Nearly 30,000 airline passengers must ask the TSA to remove their names from watch lists.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

WASHINGTON--About 30,000 airline passengers have discovered since last November that their names were mistakenly matched with those appearing on federal watch lists, a transportation security official said Tuesday.

Jim Kennedy, director of the Transportation Security Administration's redress office, revealed the errors at a quarterly meeting convened here by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

Kennedy said that travelers have had to ask the TSA to clear their identities from watch lists by submitting a "Passenger Identity Verification Form" and three notarized copies of identification documents. On average, he said, it takes officials 45 to 60 days to evaluate the request and make any necessary changes.

Travelers have been instructed to file the forms only after experiencing "repeated" travel delays, he said, because additional screening can occur for multiple reasons, including fitting a certain profile, flying on a one-way ticket or being selected randomly by a computer.

Of the 30,000 people who said they were mistakenly matched to names on the list, none ever had been kept from boarding an airplane, Kennedy said. Their names appeared only on a "selectee list," where members are singled out for additional screening. Names on the "no-fly" list, however, are unilaterally barred from flying. The office said it hasn't been informed of any cases where people have disputed matches with names on the no-fly list.

After submitting their notarized forms and identifications, and waiting for evaluations, the vast majority of the people mistakenly matched to names on the watch list have now been added to a "clearance" list. That doesn't mean their names are erased from the watch list. In fact, travelers who go through the paperwork are told, Kennedy said, that "it will not quote 'remove' you from the list because the person we're still looking for is out there."

Instead, their names are put on the separate clearance list, which means they typically can't check in for flights at an unmanned kiosk and must approach the ticket counter to explain their situation and have an airline employee match their name to the clearance list.

A total of about 60 applicants had to be denied, as security officials couldn't determine that the applicants weren't actually the same as those named on the list, Kennedy said.

According to government statistics, about 1.8 million people travel on 30,000 separate commercial flights through the nation's airports every day. It is unclear how many names are on the TSA's selectee and no-fly watch lists.

Skepticism continues to swirl around a proposed passenger screening program known as Secure Flight, which government auditors and watchdog groups have criticized for failing to lay out clear goals or address privacy and data security concerns. New York-based lawyer Lisa Sotto, the acting committee chairman, called it "the most interesting topic to this group and the one that we're most concerned about."

Kennedy's remarks came after the advisory committee unanimously adopted a list of five broad recommendations for the Secure Flight program, which include: making the program more transparent to the public and airlines, which receive the daily watch lists; keeping the goals of the program narrowly focused; collecting minimal data; providing proactive, efficient ways for people to dispute wrongful delays or prohibitions from boarding flights; and regular audits by the Homeland Security Privacy Office.

Part of the reason government officials are clamoring for Secure Flight is that it is "designed to minimize the number of instances where people are misidentified as potential terrorist threats," Kennedy said, though he didn't elaborate on the reasons for that claim.

The recommendations to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff are nonbinding. Chertoff was scheduled to speak to the committee on Tuesday but canceled at the last minute.

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.


Correction: This story incorrectly described the source of the problem for passengers. People were incorrectly matched with names appearing on the Transportation Security Administration's watch list.