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Setting the Record Straight on Terror Watch Lists

Here's the situation: Contrary to public impressions, TSA doesn't do the automated watch list matching for domestic air passengers -- the airlines do. TSA sends the list to the airlines and the airlines run it against their passenger lists, flagging people whose names match the watch list and sending them to secondary screening with all its hassles. The list we send to TSA uses lots of variants of the terrorist suspect's name, since we'd rightly be pilloried if you could avoid screening simply by flying as "S. Baker" when the system was looking for "Stewart Baker." But that means the system also flags Sam Baker. Of course we know that we're worried about a particular "Stewart Baker," not Sam and not the English go-kart racer. But the airline often only has a passenger's name, so it sends too many people to secondary screening.

At least that was the old way. In fact, we have a new way that will allow airlines to save Sam and the other Stewart Baker most of these hassles. The airlines have the date of birth of the Stewart Baker we're really worried about -- and we've asked them to collect birth dates for passengers like Sam and the other Stewart Baker who volunteer, so the airline can tell the difference. This would be great for everyone, including Drew Griffin, who isn't on the list but is apparently being treated as though he is.

Great for everyone, that is, except a few of the airlines. They'd have to make programming changes to get better name-matching. One carrier, Southwest Airlines, has one of the industry's best systems for minimizing false positives. Unfortunately, many other airlines haven't done the same. Maybe they can't afford it. Maybe their systems are too old. Maybe some aren't concerned if their passengers are hassled, as long as they don't get the blame. Maybe they're waiting for the federal government to take over the whole process -- which is on the way with Secure Flight. Whatever the reason, some airlines are either slow to do it or simply aren't doing it, and both TSA and passengers like Drew Griffin are living with the fallout.

In the long run, TSA will take over the system and do the watch list matching on its own. (It would already have taken over the matching except for the objections of privacy activists who evidently think TSA should not be trusted with passengers' birth dates, and who are willing to sentence some passengers to a lifetime of inconvenience in order to keep such vital information out of the hands of "big government.")

In the short run, the airlines will continue to manage the screening process. Southwest spent the money and took the time to modify its computers and thereby save its passengers from false matches. Good for them.