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Secure Flight

My first contact with the program triggered all my phishing alerts: an unexpected email purporting to be from a trusted source asked for personal information. I’d have rejected it out of hand, but I do expect to fly as a passenger on commercial air soon and I’d rather not be turned back at the gate in case it turned out to be real.

It is. Enter Secure Flight, the latest waste of time from the ever-useless TSA. Conceptually, it’s at least not counterproductive: they want to make the no-fly and extra screening watchlists more selective, by accounting for age and gender as well as name. However, they remain true to form by implementing the idea terribly.

Here’s the idea: every traveler must submit their full name, their date of birth, and their gender when purchasing a ticket. The airline collates a list of these and submits it to the TSA, where it is compared to the watchlists.

Here are the problems. First, no airline ticket purchasing system is designed to collect all of this information. That could be fixed, but the TSA is rolling out the program slowly on a per-airline basis with no advance notice or public oversight, requiring each of them to send these scammy-looking emails after the fact of purchase to collect this information without which the ticket becomes void.

Second, the filtering is done by computer, so it requires the traveler’s exact name. The problem here is that few if any people write their name exactly the same way on every document. I buy airline tickets using my first and last name. Some of my identification documents have my full middle name, some include just an initial. Sometimes, as in my upcoming flight, I won’t have any formal identification documents at all, just military leave paperwork. (Fun fact: I’ve flown to and from Korea three times so far with nothing more than an 8.5×11″ sheet of paper with a form and some scribbled signatures on it. Mine is authentic. The TSA has never actually verified that it was.) Plenty of people have more than three names. Designing the system such that it can be defeated by leaving out an initial renders it nearly useless.

Finally, if you’ve got my name, gender, and birth date, you’re halfway to stealing my identity. I am not comfortable surrendering this information to an organization that has reliably provided security theatre at the expense of actual security. To do much with a stolen identity, you also need at least part of a social security number; I suspect that anyone in a position to misuse the passenger information collected through this program will also have access to resources which can provide that.

Will I submit, and provide the TSA with everything it demands? Yes. Commercial flight is still the only option both fast enough to provide international travel within my leave time and cheap enough to be affordable. However, every time I fly within the US, I am more and more disinclined to ever repeat the experience.

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