By TATABOLINE BRANT
Anchorage Daily News
August 23, 2005
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage with the help of a California attorney, lists three Alaskans and a Montana man who regularly works in Alaska as the plaintiffs.
All four individuals say in the lawsuit they have been trying since May to find out what information the TSA has collected on them for a new terrorist-watch database it is testing called Secure Flight.
Privacy activist Bill Scannell of California said it is especially important for Alaskans to be able to access information kept about them by the TSA, to make sure it is correct so they don't get barred from a flight when they show up at the airport .
"Here in Alaska, if you're told you can't fly, you're effectively exiled," he said. "What are you going to do - walk? Take a taxi?"
The Secure Flight database, slated for completion this summer, is designed to replace the existing system domestic airlines use to check passengers against the government's no-fly and watch lists.
According to the TSA, Secure Flight will collect more personal information on individuals than the current system in order to reduce cases of mistaken identity. After a few days, the information will be purged. Credit card and Social Security numbers are not part of the information collected, according to a TSA spokeswoman.
In order to test the new system, the TSA ordered all major domestic carriers to turn over their passenger name records for the month of June 2004. Without notifying the public, the TSA then contracted with a private company to add more information to the database. The expanded records included information such as full names, phone numbers, dates of birth and possibly other personal information, the lawsuit says.
The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, looked into the matter and concluded earlier this year that the TSA violated the law when it did not fully inform the public about the scope of its data collection, or the procedures it would use for collecting, using and storing the information.
It was during this maelstrom that the plaintiffs in the Alaska lawsuit tried to find out just what information had been collected on them. They teamed up with the First Amendment Project, a nonprofit out of California, attorney Jim Harrison, and Scannell. The plaintiffs were all people who flew or booked tickets in June 2004: John Davis, superintendent of the Bering Strait School District; Sarah Huntley and William Beck, co-owners of an Anchorage-area travel agency; and Montana resident Charles Beckley, who provides technical support to rural Alaska school districts on a contractual basis.
They wrote letters to the TSA, requesting to see all the information collected on them, according to the lawsuit.
The agency replied that it couldn't find any such records, according to the lawsuit.
Around the same time, the agency announced that it was purging records it no longer needed, the lawsuit says. The plaintiffs wrote to the TSA again, asking them not to destroy records. They also provided more specific information about what day they flew in June 2004, and on what airline, to expedite the request, the lawsuit says. The TSA said it still couldn't find the records, and kept on purging its system, Harrison said.
"It comes to a point where we say: 'What are you hiding?' " said Beckley, the Montanan.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the TSA to stop deleting files and hand over information about the plaintiffs. It also asks that the agency be found in violation of the Privacy Act. A hearing on the matter has not yet been set.
A spokeswoman for the TSA declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
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