‘Secure Flight’ insecurities


Don’t look now -- by which, of course, I mean do look now.

Look at all the ink and airtime lavished on the titillating stories about Southwest Airlines threatening to boot a couple of passengers off flights unless they tidied up their ensembles. A student/Hooters waitress had to tug her miniskirt down and pull up her neckline, and a man flying home to Florida had to turn his T-shirt inside out to hide its “Master Baiter” joke tackle-shop logo.

While we were all getting some giggles out of that, the Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Administration have been going ahead with something that could keep a lot of blameless people off planes, no matter what they’re wearing, and might fill up dossiers with stuff they have no business knowing. Never mind cleavage top or bottom: Someone may be taking note of what we do in the sack, who we travel with, what we read and whether we belong to a union.

“Secure Flight” is the latest remake of a TSA program that’s undergone as many changes as Britney’s hair. This time it would, among other things, make it the government’s job -- not the airlines’ -- to check passengers’ names against watch lists and then clear them to check in and travel.


Haven’t heard of Secure Flight? That’s the way they like it in D.C. But some of the people who do know about it are not pleased.

Canadians are peeved: Some airline flights that merely fly over the United States, without so much as touching a wheel to U.S. soil, would have to fork over more information about passengers, and do it as much as three days before the flights take off. Canada already worked with the U.S. to craft its own no-fly list and security policies. “What’s the point of this cooperative approach if our list isn’t deemed to be good enough for the United States?” asked Air Transport Assn. of Canada Vice President Fred Gaspar.

The AFL-CIO is peeved: A July 26 letter from Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to the head of the Council of the European Union raised alarms. Detailing new air safety policies, Chertoff outlined privacy safeguards for any personal data about EU passengers that reveal “racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership and data concerning the health or sex life of the individual.” Since when is union membership -- not to mention the sex lives of French, Dutch, British or Italian tourists -- a terrorist risk factor?

Edward Wytkind, who heads the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department, is dumbfounded: “We don’t think collecting data on union membership has anything to do with running homeland security or weeding out security risks . . . it really crosses over into a very dangerous place.”

Privacy advocates, already peeved by no-fly list mix-ups, are dismayed by Chertoff’s letter and Secure Flight. They wonder: Could all that EU data collection apply to Americans too? Race, health, sex life, political opinions? We’re mostly just flying to see our mothers, not applying for work at the CIA. Who’s gathering that info, and how would they get it? Would they get it right?

I’m happy to say some U.S. senators are peeved too: They ragged on a TSA official but good this week -- why is the agency not inspecting a jet’s cargo as rigorously as it inspects its passengers and their toiletries? Why no security checks for foreigners repairing U.S. jets in places such as Egypt and Singapore? The sarcasm in Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s voice jumps off the page: “I hope you can be as righteously indignant about the foreign repair stations as you are about mascara.”


Finally, businesspeople and the travel industry don’t seem thrilled, judging from Web discourse. The 72-hour government security check and requests for yet more passenger data will apply to more than just Canadian overflights. When someone says “government,” the word expeditious doesn’t come to mind. What will befall the last-minute traveler? With all this going on, the one thing we shouldn’t do is put our tray tables up and bury our noses in any old bestseller. Bill Scannell is with the Identity Project, a privacy-rights group funded by IT rich guy and civil libertarian John Gilmore. He told me that customs and border records he’s seen for five Identity Project sympathizers noted that one carried a book called “Drugs and Your Rights.” Another file noted chattily that the passenger had been traveling for about a month, had gone to a computer conference, visited friends and is -- in quotes -- a computer software “entrepreneur.” Which, when you put it that way, sounds more alarming than “union member.”

Oh, am I busted. On my recent home-to-mother flights, I read Susan Faludi’s new book, “Terror Dream,” about post-9/11 America; the New Yorker with a piece on Jenna Bush’s first book; and a comic volume called “Unusually Stupid Politicians.”

TSA is accepting public comments on Secure Flight’s latest plans; the deadline is Oct. 22. Be careful what you say, unless you don’t mind getting home for Christmas . . . in January.