“Secure Flight” Will Soon Require Gender and Birthdate When You Fly

Government Regulation, Safety/Security

Looks like those wacky folks over at the Department of Homeland Security are at it again. In the name of improving your safety and security, Secure Flight is (supposedly) ready for implementation in early 2009. (Click for a little history on the program.) What does that mean? Well, they’re now planning on requiring birth dates and gender from all passengers touching US airspace. Oh, and the TSA will be doing the watch list matching instead of the airlines themselves. How is this going to make your life better? For most of you, it won’t, but it’ll sure cost you a lot as a taxpayer and traveler.

Secure Flight Ruling Issued

I think the best way to sum up the change is this. DHS isn’t planning on actually cleaning up the list, so instead they’ll just make people give more information so they stop mismatching so often. Now they can look at the guy who was born in 1988 and realize that it’s not the same as the “terrorist threat” who was born in 1978. Oh yeah, and all those ambiguously-named people like Pat and Terry can now rest easy that if someone of the opposite sex might be a terrorist, they won’t be falsely flagged.

In fact, they effectively say this in the sleep-inducing 195 page final ruling (PDF):

Most of the rule’s benefits occur post-implementation. Secure Flight standardizes the watch list matching process across domestic and foreign commercial airlines. Resulting benefits will include more accurate, timely, and comprehensive screening, and a reduction in false positives. This occurs because Secure Flight has access to more initial data with which to distinguish passengers from records in the watch lists than is currently available to airlines.

But will this slow down the process? Yes, but not much. It will take a little more time to collect this extra information, but it will be done at the time of purchase, not at the airport. So, if you go to buy a ticket at the airport right before your flight, I can imagine it being slower because you’ll need to be cross-referenced with watch lists, but other than that, it shouldn’t make much of a change at the airport itself.

Of course, this won’t be cheap. The estimates are that it will cost airlines $630 million over 10 years. The bulk of that is for reprogramming systems to be able to take this additional information, and the rest is in time lost due to the extra 20 to 25 seconds (that’s what the TSA says) that it will take for people to give their information when they make a reservation. But those are just airline costs. The Feds (read: US taxpayers) will be on the hook for about $1.5 billion in costs.

So, the ultimate result is that yes, there will be fewer people mismatched to the watch lists, but it’s going to cost us billions of dollars and it won’t impact most of us, especially if the watch lists are in fact only 18,000 people strong, as the government is now claiming. That seems like an awfully large sum of money to spend to avoid duplicates on such a small list. Anyone else believe that report that the list is that small? Me neither.

Let’s assume the list is actually much bigger. Is it worth it to spend billions of dollars to avoid mismatching? Not for me, because I’ve never been on the list. But for those who have, you’ll probably be pretty happy.

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4 comments on ““Secure Flight” Will Soon Require Gender and Birthdate When You Fly

  1. I come down on the other side of the issue. I think the airlines AND TSA should have been collecting birthdate and full name information a long time ago. Sheesh, how are they supposed to avoid false positives with only a name to go by, there are just too many name matches.

    On the other hand, I’d like to see the birthdate information limited to month and year (to reduce some identity theft risk).

    What I think is hilarious, is the fact that despite all the years of computer and data base development,

    1) the databases can’t handle middle names well, can’t handle long last names, and can’t handle native scripts other than English (no Thai, Chinese, Arabic). Even if the airlines need Romanizations of foreign scripts so the gate agents can pronounce foreign names and tell one from another, it’s absurd to think that foreign spellings also get transliterated to the English alphabet uniformly.

    2) we are fools to think that names are as “consistent” in foreign countries as they are in this country. Spelling and usage shifts much more readily in other countries than they shift here. Heck, for that matter, I drove databases nuts when I used my middle name instead of my first name (I never use my first name, EXCEPT for travel or driver’s license purposes).

    The whole idea of tagging identity to an officially issued card or supposed fixed name is absurd. We need a finger printing biometric device if we really want to track the bad guys.

    Assuming we can figure out who the bad guys are. The elephant in the sitting room is the fact that terrorist organizations constantly recruit new and unknown names and faces to do their dirty work for them. Our lists will ALWAYS be out of date.

  2. MarkWeb – I’m not sure that I disagree with you (though gender really won’t help very much) in theory. But the big question is this . . . is it worth the billions of dollars that it’s going to cost? I agree completely that it’s ridiculous how archaic the systems are and how little they can handle. But does it make sense to throw a band-aid on and try to bring the existing systems up to code, or should we be encouraging everyone to implement new systems so that we don’t keep slapping on temporary fixes?

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