Sunday, 26 October 2003

Eyewitness to presentation on jetBlue passenger profiling

I had a long chat this week with Brian Lawson, business reporter for the Huntsville [AL] Times. He called me in the course of his research for a follow-up story on Huntsville military contractor Torch Concepts and its use of jetBlue Airways’ passenger database for tests of airline passenger profiling and threat assessment.

Lawson’s story in today’s Huntsville Times (free registration and cookie acceptance required) is worth reading. Torch Concepts’ attorney/spokesperson told Lawson that, “From our perspective, there was nothing bad that happened…. The complaints are from a vocal minority. The majority of people are very comfortable with this.” I guess he hasn’t noticed that public comments, at last count, were running more than 5,000 to 1 against CAPPS-II.

I was even more interested, though, in some of the things Lawson told me that didn’t make it into his story in today’s paper. Lawson was, so far as he remembers, the only reporter in attendance, and is the only eyewitness so far to come forward, at the conference presentation by Torch Concepts about how it got the the jetBlue Airways data and what it did with it. Lawson even wrote about it at the time — making him, and not me, the first to have reported that jetBlue passenger data had been used in profiling tests. He read me his brief story (the Hunstville Times archives aren’t available online). It was matter-of-fact — as, Lawson said, was the Torch Concepts presentation. “It simply didn’t occur to me that this was anything secret. There was nothing they were trying to hide,” he said. “This wasn’t a classified conference — it was open to anyone who paid the admission fee — and you can’t get much more high-profile than that conference if you’re a Hunstville defense contractor.”

Lawson didn’t remember anything being said in the conference presentation about military base security. “It was all about airline passenger profiling,” he recalled, although this week the spokesperson/attorney for Torch again claimed that “the company’s work was not sponsored by TSA and he doesn’t know why TSA helped Torch get the data.”

Even more significantly, Lawson remembered Bill Roark, who gave the Torch presentation, saying that jetBlue had provided the data because jetBlue’s fare structire (no advance purchase or round-trip purchase requirements) led to an unusaully high percentage of last-minute one-way ticket purchases, and thus an unusally high rate of selection of passengers for “secondary security screening” under the current CAPPS 1 profiling system. “jetBlue cooperated because they had so many of their passengers getting selected,” Lawson says Roark told the conference, “and they hoped that providing their data might help reduce that number”.

But if the Torch research wasn’t intended to be used for passenger screening, Lawson wonders, why would jetBlue have had any particular interest in providing data for military base security research? What Lawson remembers Roark saying makes sense only if the Torch project really was intended for airline passenger profiling rather than, as Torch now claims, military base security.

Also today, Sean Holstege of the Oakland Tribune — another reporter who’s been digging into the airline passenger profiling and “watch list” stories for months — has a detailed update on some of the problems facing the TSA in getting data for CAPPS-II testing. Among other interesting bits of news, Holstege quotes “insiders’ estimates” that the TSA has already spent “between $80 million and $100 million on [CAPPS-II] testing and consultants.” There’s still no public figure on how much the TSA plans to spend to complete and deploy the system, although I’ve estmated total costs (most of which, evidently, the TSA expects to be absorbed by the travel industry) at over US$1 billion.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 26 October 2003, 20:31 ( 8:31 PM)
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