Privatized airport security on the way

Frequent Traveler smartcard program to be operated by various contractors at airports.

Under the Transportation Security Administration's Frequent Traveler program, people willing to have their fingerprints and background checks etched onto a smartcard would get their own check-in lines at the airport. That's the good news. Wired News reports that under TSA's outline released Friday the lines and the cards would be operated by private companies under contract to TSA.

Applicants will undergo a government background check and submit 10 fingerprints which will be encoded onto a smart card. When a cardholder enters the security lane, they will have their fingerprints compared to those stored on the card.

While cardholders will have dedicated screening lanes operated by private operators, they will still pass through metal detectors and have their bags x-rayed. However, they will likely not be flagged for pat downs just for booking a ticket at the last minute or flying one-way.

There is naturally concern about such data being in private companies' databases, given the numerous breaches of commercial databases over the past year. On the other hand, the NSA domestic spying flap doesn't give a lot of confidence that the government will maintain proper controls over personal data, either.

Companies may do additional background checks using commercial databases that include information such as mortgages, marital status and shopping habits. The TSA says companies that do so can offer to get their members through screening even faster, but did not specify how that would work.

Marcia Hofmann, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is waiting to learn further details, but counseled that the program needs to respect travelers' rights.

"Already the Registered Traveler program is exempt from certain important privacy protections that safeguard the rights of individuals," Hofmann said. "The full protections ought to be in place whether the data is handled by the government or the vendors."