Air Travel Privacy

The right to travel is a part of the "liberty" of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment ... Freedom of movement across frontiers in either direction, and inside frontiers as well, was a part of our heritage. Travel abroad, like travel within the country, may be necessary for a livelihood. It may be as close to the heart of the individual as the choice of what he eats, or wears, or reads. Freedom of movement is basic in our scheme of values. "Our nation," wrote Chafee, "has thrived on the principle that, outside areas of plainly harmful conduct, every American is left to shape his own life as he thinks best, do what he pleases, go where he pleases."

-- Justice William O. Douglas, Kent v. Dulles (1958)

Post-September 11, several measures have been considered to improve aviation security. Some of these proposals, such as improved training for airport screeners, checking all bags for bombs, strengthening cockpit doors, and placing air marshals on flights, do not implicate privacy interests and are sound security measures. Others, however, present privacy and security risks to air travelers. These proposals concern efforts to identify passengers and schemes to distinguish the "good guys" from the "bad." EPIC will make available on this page aviation security and privacy related documents it obtains from the government under the freedom of information law to promote and inform the public debate over these new schemes.

In earlier responses to security threats the FAA issued a secret regulation that allowed airlines to demand photo identification and instituted a new profiling program called CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System) based on travel data airlines routinely collected. See Previous Files. New proposals advocate using biometric credentials for "trusted travelers" and using extensive data mining of credit history, criminal records, and travel patterns to profile all airline passengers. NASA has even suggested developing "non-invasive neuro-electric sensors" or brain scans at the security gate to see if people are having suspicious thoughts.

The stated goal of these new proposals is to rely on technology to reduce the "hassle factor" in airports and to reduce security threats. The core idea is to focus security resources on suspicious travelers, while ensuring that most people are not inconvenienced by heightened security. Terrorists, however, have been known to go to great lengths to look like most people. Former Transportation Security Agency chief John Magaw refused to endorse a "trusted traveler" card, fearing that it would be the first thing a terrorist will try to obtain. New profiling and identification programs will convert airport security into all-purpose police stops where criminals, deadbeat dads, and others seeking to avoid law enforcement for non-aviation security related reasons face the risk of being arrested.

The basic structure of passenger profiling is to use an algorithm to determine indicators of characteristics or behavior patterns that are related to the occurrence of certain behavior. The CAPPS-II initiative will expand the range of databases searched for suspicious activity so that each airline passenger will be subjected to an extensive profiling. John Pointdexter's office in the Defense Department is considering developing a similar Total Information Awareness system. Each structural element of the CAPPS-II profiling system, however, raises a host of complex questions:

Algorithm: What logic will be used? What is the basis for developing the algorithm? What are acceptable false positive and false negative rates?

Indicators: What indicators are relevant? Are these indicators available? Who will collect and store the relevant indicators?

Related: How are the indicators related to particular kinds of behavior? Is that relationship reliable?

Behavior: Who determines what behavior should be targeted? What types of specific behavior will the system try to catch?

In addition there are several technical issues such as how reliable is the data used to make profiling decisions? What kind of data should be collected and how long should the data be retained? Who will have access to the data and for what purposes?

The policy issues also need to be addressed: what will be the rights of individuals to control their personally identifiable information? What recourse will be available for someone wrongly identified or denied a service? Will profiling based on deep data-mining stand up to charges of equal protection and due process violations? The new proposals directly implicate long standing constitutional protections under the fourth and first amendments, including the right to travel, and must be clearly understood and properly considered by the public.

Latest News


Identification Schemes


Documents Obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Other Documents

  • Final Report of the White House Commission.
  • Initial Report of the White House Commission (September 9, 1996).
  • Executive Order 13015 creating the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security (August 22, 1996) (PDF version)

  • 1994 statute authorizing FAA research into security matters (including "behavioral research") and exempting information relating to such research from disclosure under the FOIA.


Previous Files

  • FAA Proposes Profiling Regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration published proposed regulations on April 19, 1999, governing "Security of Checked Baggage on Flights Within the United States." The draft rules detail the use of computer profiling techniques to identify suspicious passengers. Public comments can be filed until June 18, 1999.
  • Airline Passenger Profiling Goes Into Effect. The Computer Assisted Passenger Screening System is scheduled to be phased in nationwide beginning on January 1. Under the system, passengers who "fit the profile" will be selected for heightened security measures, which can include a thorough search of their luggage, intrusive personal questioning, tagging of luggage with orange tape, and a physical escort from the check-in counter to the airport gate by security personnel. The ACLU is providing an online complaint form for passengers targeted by the profiling system.
  • Microsoft Chief Architect Charles Simonyi tells what happens when you "fit the profile" (from Slate ).
  • Proposed FAA rule for collecting personal information including name, address, Social Security Number, Date of birth and next of kin for every domestic passenger.
  • General Account Office report, Aviation Safety and Security: Challenges to Implementing the Recommendations of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security (Testimony, 03/05/97, GAO/T-RCED-97-90).
  • The Gore Commission has released its final report recommending passenger profiling. A coalition of 17 groups has sent a letter to Gore opposing ID checks, profiling, new x-ray technologies and excessive secrecy by the FAA in making decisions.

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