WASHINGTON -- The federal agency in charge of aviation security collected extensive personal information about airline passengers even though Congress forbade it and officials said they would not do it, according to documents obtained yesterday.
The Transportation Security Administration bought and is storing detailed personal information about US citizens who flew on commercial airlines in June 2004 as part of a test of a terrorist screening program called Secure Flight, according to documents that will be published in the Federal Register this week.
''TSA is losing the public's trust," said Tim Sparapani, a privacy lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. ''They have a repeated, consistent problem with doing one thing and then saying they did another."
Secure Flight and its predecessor, CAPPS II, have been criticized for secretly obtaining personal information about airline passengers and failing to do enough to protect it. The TSA and several airlines were embarrassed last year when it was revealed that information on 12 million passengers was given to the government without the permission or knowledge of the travelers. An inspector general's report found that the TSA misled the public about its role in acquiring the data.
Class-action lawsuits have been brought against airlines and government contractors for sharing their passengers' information. As a result, airlines agreed to turn over passenger data for testing only after they were ordered to do so by the government in November.
According to the documents, the TSA gave the data, known as passenger name records, to its contractor, Virginia-based EagleForce Associates. Passenger name records can include a variety of information, including name, address, phone number, and credit card information.
EagleForce then compared the passenger name records with commercial data from three contractors that included first, last, and middle names, home address and phone number, birth date, name suffix, second surname, spouse first name, gender, second address, third address, ZIP code, and latitude and longitude of address. The reason for the comparison was to find out if the passenger name record data was inaccurate, according to the TSA.
EagleForce then produced CD-ROMs containing the information -- except for latitude and longitude and spouse's first name -- ''and provided those CD-ROMs to TSA for use in watch list match testing," the documents said. TSA now stores that data.
According to previous official notices, TSA had said it would not store commercial data about airline passengers.
The Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the government from keeping a secret database. It also requires agencies to make official statements on the impact of their record keeping on privacy.
The TSA revealed its use of commercial data in a revised Privacy Act statement to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow.
Mark Hatfield, a spokesman for the TSA, said that the program was being developed with a commitment to privacy, and that it was routine to change Privacy Act statements during testing.
''Secure Flight is built on an airtight privacy platform, and the GAO [Government Accountability Office] and Congress are providing close oversight every step of the way," he said. ''The purpose of the testing is to define what the program will ultimately look like."
The TSA said that it is protecting the data from theft and carefully restricting access to it.
Congress said that no money could be spent to test such an identity verification system ''until TSA has developed measures to determine the impact of such verification on aviation security and the Government Accountability Office has reported on its evaluation of the measures." That language was part of the Homeland Security Department spending bill, which became law on Oct. 18.