If you've purchased an airline ticket recently, your airline or travel agent likely asked for your full legal name or the name on your passport, as well as your birth date. After years of delays and rounds of controversy, the Department of Homeland Security's "Secure Flight" initiative is rolling out.
Secure Flight's objective is to make us safer from terrorist threats when we fly, but the program has faced significant questions, opposition and implementation issues since its inception. Airlines have been matching passenger manifests to lists of known or suspected terrorists since the 9/11 attacks, but in 2002 Congress passed a law mandating that the list checking function be taken over by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Seven years later, that transition is finally underway. Concerns over passenger privacy have been addressed by scaling back the data collected by airlines and passed along to the government. Only the passenger's full legal name, sex and birth date will be used, but revamping airline and travel agency systems to collect this data has been an expensive and monumental effort.
Another major issue created by checking passenger names against the "no fly" lists occurs when an innocent passenger happens to share the same name or alias with a known or suspected terrorist. In that situation the innocent traveler is constantly singled out or further screening until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can verify that this person is not the wanted terrorist. It is hoped the expanded data will mean fewer false matches and fewer innocent passengers singled out for further screening.
TSA has also tackled the "redress" issue on how innocent passengers clear their names if they are falsely identified as a terrorist. TSA seems to have quelled most initial concerns, but using full legal names raises a new issue for millions of Americans. From now on, every airline ticket you purchase will bear your full legal name and all your identification cards must match as well.
Like many business travelers, I belong to multiple frequent flier programs, use several credit cards and have numerous relationships with travel agencies and websites for purchasing travel. Some vendors know me as David Grossman, others as Dave Grossman, others as David G. Grossman, still more as D. Grossman. David George Grossman appears only on my driver's license and passport.
Because of Secure Flight, millions of Americans will need to change the names they're currently using with every travel vendor. It's a costly exercise for individuals and travel suppliers. Will it be worth the hassle? Or more specifically, will it help catch or thwart terrorists?
There are many skeptics. Bruce Schneier, an expert and author on security technology, believes Secure Flight is an ineffective way to prevent terrorism.
To begin with, Schneier claims the entire concept of a no-fly list doesn't make much sense. "It is a list of people so dangerous that can't be allowed to fly for any reason, yet so innocent we can't arrest them," says Schneier. "What kind of moronic list is this? Either arrest the people or get them off the list."