The US Government has admitted that it broke privacy laws in its domestic airline passenger data scheme. The Homeland Security Department has admitted that it gathered more information than it had said it would.
The admission will be a boost to campaigners who want to derail a deal between the European Commission and the US on passenger data sharing on the grounds that the US does not protect personal information well enough.
An investigation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s own privacy office was conducted into some aspects of Secure Flight, the successor to the CAPPS II passenger screening programme which is run by DHS's Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
That programme had already been suspended by the time the privacy office produced the report. Angry at inadequate privacy protection, Congress has specifically barred the Government from operating another passenger screening programme unless watchdogs are first satisfied that privacy, accuracy and security are good enough.
"As ultimately implemented, the commercial data test conducted in connection with the Secure Flight program testing did not match TSA's public announcements," said the report. "Part of the reason for this discrepancy is the fact that the Fall Privacy Notices were drafted before the testing program had been designed fully."
"Material changes in a federal program's design that have an impact on the collection, use, and maintenance of personally identifiable information of American citizens are required to be announced in Privacy Act system notices and privacy impact assessments. In addition, not meeting these requirements can significantly impair a program's credibility," it said.
The Government Accountability Office, which audits government on behalf of Congress, produced a similarly damning report in 2005 which said that the TSA "did not fully disclose to the public its use of personal information in its fall [autumn] 2004 privacy notices as required by the Privacy Act".
The DHS's own report admitted as much. "TSA announced one testing programme, but conducted an entirely different one," it said.
The revelation will be fuel for privacy activists who have condemned the European Commission's passenger data sharing scheme with the US. Opposed by the European Parliament, that scheme was ruled unlawful on a technicality by the European Court of Justice, but an almost identical but technically correct replacement was put in place.