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Babies on the No Fly List

According to the AP [link no longer available]:

Infants have been stopped from boarding planes at airports throughout the United States because their names are the same as or similar to those of possible terrorists on the government’s “no-fly list.”

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not funny to parents who miss flights while scrambling to have babies’ passports and other documents faxed.

Ingrid Sanden’s 1-year-old daughter was stopped in Phoenix, Arizona, before boarding a flight home to Washington at Thanksgiving.

“I completely understand the war on terrorism, and I completely understand people wanting to be safe when they fly,” Sanden said. “But focusing the target a little bit is probably a better use of resources.”

The government’s lists of people who are either barred from flying or require extra scrutiny before being allowed to board airplanes grew markedly since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union say the government doesn’t provide enough information about the people on the lists, so innocent passengers can be caught up in the security sweep if they happen to have the same name as someone on the lists. . . .

But for now, airlines still have the duty to check passengers’ names against those supplied by the government.

That job has become more difficult — since the 2001 attacks the lists have swelled from a dozen or so names to more than 100,000 names, according to people in the aviation industry who are familiar with the issue. They asked not to be identified by name because the exact number is restricted information.

It would be nice to see some sanity in TSA’s security procedures. Who exactly are the 100,000 people who can’t fly? Can these people be arrested? If a person is so dangerous to fly yet not dangerous enough to be arrested, what’s going on?

I have no objection to a list of known suspects that should be arrested if they are caught. But when information about wanted suspects is handed out to authorities, it is typically more detailed to prevent wrongful arrests. Instead, the TSA’s system denies people the ability to fly based simply upon their name appearing on some blacklist. It does not appear to be designed to locate and arrest dangerous suspects — just to stop people from flying.

Often, debates pit privacy against security. One of the biggest problems that is overlooked is that those planning and carrying out security measures can be quite dumb and lack common sense. That’s because they often escape from scrutiny by simply crying: “We need this! It helps security!” The debate shifts to whether we can tolerate the privacy and civil liberties costs — or how to address privacy and civil liberties given that these security measures must be undertaken. It’s time to really look hard at the security measures themselves and see if they really are well-designed and thoughtful — or just some silly poorly-planned and poorly-executed undertaking.

UPDATE: There’s an extensive discussion about this post over at PrawfsBlawg.

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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