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man being security scannedToo much information? An article in the October 22 issue of The New York Times reveals the many intrusive, and to some, disturbing, ways in which The Transportation Security Administration is now expanding its screening of passengers before they even arrive at an airport, including “searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information.”

While the T.S.A. says that “the goal is to streamline the security procedures for millions of passengers who pose no risk,” the article reports, “the new measures give the government greater authority to use travelers’ data for domestic airport screenings. Previously that level of scrutiny applied only to individuals entering the United States.”

Any number of personal details may be scrutinized

The prescreening, some of which is already taking place, complies with government regulations about the collection and use of individuals’ data, but the details of the program have not been publicly announced. Therefore, it is unclear precisely what information the agency is relying upon to make these risk assessments, given the extensive range of records it can access, including tax identification number, past travel itineraries, property records, physical characteristics, and law enforcement or intelligence information, according to the article.

Apparently, the new screening procedures go beyond the background check the government has conducted for years, called Secure Flight, in which a passenger’s name, gender and date of birth are compared with terrorist watch lists. Now, the search includes using a traveler’s passport number, which is already used to screen people at the border, and other identifiers to access a system of databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.

Privacy groups see a red flag

Privacy groups are understandably concerned over the security agency’s widening reach. “I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly,” Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to the Identity Project, which opposes the prescreening initiatives, told The Times. “The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.”

The T.S.A. contends that the initiatives were needed to make the procedures more targeted. “Secure Flight has successfully used information provided to airlines to identify and prevent known or suspected terrorists or other individuals on no-fly lists from gaining access to airplanes or secure areas of airports,” the security agency said in a statement. “Additional risk assessments are used for those higher-risk passengers.”

Anyone who has never traveled outside the United States would not have a passport number on file and would therefore not be subject to the rules that the agency uses to determine risk. However, documents indicate that the T.S.A. is prescreening all passengers in some fashion. Details considered during such prescreening include an individual’s travel itinerary, length of stay abroad and type of travel document.

Best bet: join the T.S.A.’s trusted traveler program

The heightened, more invasive screening effort comes as the T.S.A. is trying to increase participation in PreCheck, its trusted traveler program, that allows frequent fliers to pass through security more quickly after submitting their fingerprints and undergoing a criminal-background check.

The T.S.A. has emphasized its goal of giving 25% of all passengers lighter screening by the end of next year, meaning they can keep their shoes and jackets on, wait in separate lines and leave laptop computers in their bags. But travelers who find themselves in the higher-risk category can be subjected to repeated searches, The Times reports.

The airline industry has supported the expansion of PreCheck, as well as the T.S.A.’s authority to use data about travelers to decide who should receive more or less scrutiny at checkpoints, to reduce security bottlenecks, and to focus resources on higher-risk passengers.

What you can do if you feel you’ve been wrongly singled out

“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes,” Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has fought to block these initiatives, told The Times. “There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.”

For travelers who feel they have been wrongly placed on some type of watch list or experienced security screening problems, the Department of Homeland Security has established a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. According to a review by the department’s Privacy Office, there were at least 13,000 inquiries to the redress program in the nine months ending March 31, 2013. However, civil liberties groups and many travelers described the redress process as a black hole, The Times reports.

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