It's unclear exactly what flags some passengers as suspicious

It's a seemingly innocuous string of letters that have been popping up on some unlucky fliers boarding passes -- "SSSS".  According to a report by The New York Times, that code signals that you've been flagged as part of an expanded flier screening program.  Often the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) official at a security checkpoint is handed a small set of cards reminding them of what passengers worthy of special screening are due to be headed through on any given day.

I. Life On the Selectee List

Once at the gate, flagged passengers face extra pat-downs and their luggage is often meticulously torn down, and even swabbed to look for traces of explosives.  The pre-check designees are often stopped at the gate before being allowed to enter the aircraft -- a move that some screening designees argue embarrasses and draws scrutiny to the pre-check passenger.  Flagged passengers are also often denied the right to check-in for their flight online, making it easier to miss flights during peak travel times.

One such passenger is Abdulla Darrat, a 31-year-old urban planner from Queens, New York, who was flagged roughly a year after visiting family in Libya.  He believes that posts he made on Facebook, Inc.'s (FB) network and other social media sites expressing support for the protests which eventually overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi might also have helped add him to the list.

TSA lettering
"SSSS" is a scarlet letter of sorts for fliers. [Image Source: The NYT]

But Mr. Darrat insists he is no threat to the country, commenting, "They pat me down.  Then they pull out every single article of clothing in my bag. They take out every shirt and every pair of pants."

The algorithm at the center of this controversial tactic is the Automated Targeting System.  Fed data including "tax identification number, past travel itineraries, property records, physical characteristics, and law enforcement or intelligence information" the algorithm attempts to guess at how likely a passenger might be to be a dangerous terrorist or militant.

The program has its limitations -- any U.S. citizen who doesn't have a passport is automatically removed from the search.  The TSA argues though that the program -- along with its recently expanded PreCheck program for trusted frequent fliers -- allows approximately 25 percent of fliers to receive lighter screenings.  This lucky lot enjoys perks such as being able to leave their shoes and coats on when passing through security checkpoints and being able to leave their laptop computers in their bags.

TSA officer
The TSA argues the new program helps catch potential threats. [Image Source: World Net Daily]

And the TSA argues that its algorithms have also successfully identified potential terrorists.  An unnamed spokesperson lumped the new program in with a previous effort (Secure Flight) commenting to The NYT:

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.  Additional risk assessments are used for those higher-risk passengers.

But the new algorithm -- the Automated Target System (ATS) -- is an extra layer of screening heaped on top of the Secure Flight program introduced in 2009.  Secure Flight only offered the ability to compare a passenger’s name, gender and date of birth against known terrorists watch lists; by contrast the ATS flags passengers using a much larger data set, and subtler cues.

If you wind up on the wrong side of the algorithm you get placed on one of two lists.  The less severe -- like the list Mr. Darrat found himself on -- is the selectee list, a designation that still allows you to fly, but slots you for more aggressive screening.  The most severe designation is to be dumped onto the no-fly list, a list of thousands of Americans who are not allowed to travel out of security concerns.

II. Civil Liberties Advocates Concerned About Lack of Transparency, Info Sharing with Debt Collectors

Civil liberties advocates are concerned that the new ATS algorithm lacks transparency regarding what data is being looked at, how classifications are made, and who is on the selectee list.

The Identity Project consultant Edward Hasbrouck complains that the program essentially acts in a "guilty until proven innocent" fashion.  He warns:

I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly.  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.

Many critics also question whether any algorithm can truly "guess" at terrorist threats with a sufficiently high degree of accuracy to make it worth the downsides.  Critics and skeptics are also unhappy with the appeals process.

While fliers can appeal to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) if they feel they were unjustly screened, critics argue most of those appeals go nowhere.  According to Mr. Darrat, "A lot of people I know have tried it.  And it just doesn’t really make a difference."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) -- a top digital rights advocacy -- is another leading voice of skepticism.  Khaliah Barnes, an EPIC lawyer, comments:
The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes.  There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.

debt collectors
Critics point out the TSA is sharing damaging information with debt collectors. [Image Source: Google Images]

He and others are particularly alarmed about provisions that allow the government to share private data on fliers with private entities.  For example the TSA's Transportation Security Enforcement Record System which tracks accusations of "violations or potential violations" of airport or aircraft security procedures can be shared with "a debt collection agency for the purpose of debt collection."

Source: The New York Times

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