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TSA nominee’s data snooping raises privacy concerns

By Daniel Tencer
Friday, January 1, 2010 11:26 EDT
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An admission by the Obama administration’s nominee to run the Transportation Security Administration that he improperly accessed personal information about his estranged wife’s boyfriend and then inadvertently misled Congress about it is raising concerns about the security of air passengers’ private information.

Erroll Southers, whose bid to become head of the TSA has been stalled in Congress by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) over GOP concerns Southers will unionize the agency, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee this fall that he was reprimanded in the late 1980s when, as an FBI agent, he asked a San Diego police officer to access the criminal record of his wife’s then-boyfriend.

But a day after the Senate committee approved his nomination, Southers sent a letter to Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking members on the committee, informing them that he had “mistakenly” given an incorrect account of the incident. In the letter, obtained by the Washington Post and the Associated Press, Southers said he had “twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife’s boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee,” according to the Post.

The political pressure to find a permanent head for the TSA has risen significantly since the attempted Christmas Day attack on Northwest Flight 253. The TSA is the principal agency responsible for air travel safety, and it has been without a permanent head since President Obama took office.

But while Republicans, led by Sen. DeMint, stall Southers’ appointment over unionization fears, civil libertarians and progressives will now likely want to take a second look at the nominee as well, in light of the release of his letter to the senators. The Post reports:

Southers’ admission that he was involved in a questionable use of law enforcement background data has been a source of concern among civil libertarians, who believe the TSA performs a delicate balancing act in tapping into passenger information to find terrorists while also protecting citizens’ privacy.

Civil liberties specialists said that the misuse of databases has been common among law enforcement authorities for many years, despite an array of local, state and federal prohibitions intended to protect personal information. Studies have found that police at every level examine records of celebrities, women they have met and political rivals. Some federal authorities have been jailed for selling records to criminals.

Americans seem willing to trade information for more security, but only if there are clear limits on how the information is being used….

The Homeland Security Committee members who approved Southers’ nomination in November appear to be standing by the decision, arguing that Southers has admitted the error in his testimony, and that it involved an isolated incident more than two decades ago.

“Twenty years ago, Mr. Southers committed a serious error in judgment,” said Leslie Phillips, an aide to Sen. Lieberman, as quoted by AP. “He admitted that error and was disciplined for it. He went on to develop broad knowledge and build an excellent reputation in the areas of security and law enforcement. Mr. Southers was forthcoming about his past censure during his nomination process and about errors he made in recalling the details.”

“Southers has never tried to hide this incident and has expressed that these were errors he made in judgment that he deeply regretted and an error that he made in an account of events that happened over 20 years ago,” AP quoted White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he plans to fast-track Southers’ nomination through the Senate this month. Labor leaders and lawmakers on the Democratic side of the aisle argue that GOP objections to the unionization of the TSA are unfounded.

Supporters of the unionization of the TSA “point out that other workers deemed responsible for public safety—like police and firemen—are heavily unionized,” notes US News & World Report. “And many other federal employees, including those who deal with national security like border patrol agents and customs officers, have the right to collectively bargain.”

 
 
 
 
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