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U.S. passenger tracking plan under scrutiny

ZD Net/Alorie Gilbert | December 8 2005

A U.S. proposal that would require the travel industry to gather more passenger data and share it with federal health officials has some citizens worried about their privacy.

The new rule, proposed last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aims to broaden the agency's quarantine powers amid rising fears of a deadly, global flu outbreak. It would also expand the government's ability to contact passengers who may have been infected during travel via a coordinated data-gathering effort with airlines and cruise operators.

Specifically, the plan calls for airlines and cruise companies to collect more personal data, including phone numbers, e-mail addresses and seat locations, from both domestic and international passengers and transmit the information to the CDC within 12 hours of a request. The companies would be required to retain the data electronically for at least 60 days and destroy it after one year.

But judging from the first round of public comments posted online Wednesday, some people are up in arms over the proposed rule and its data-collection requirements. Their concerns, voiced in a dozen or so comments, center mainly on potential civil liberty violations.

"I am opposed to requiring any more information from people booking air travel," wrote David Kelley of Alexandria, Va. "There is already too much information collected, and adding more is totally uncalled for. We are supposed to be living in a free society that respects the privacy of its citizens, not a police state."

Some questioned the effectiveness and cost of such a program. "In my opinion, concern over pandemics is a reason to spend more effort on technologies to develop immunizations and treatments more rapidly," wrote David Young. "Violating civil liberties does not cure sick people, and in our society of rapid transportation it is impractical if not impossible to limit travel enough to significantly slow down a worldwide pandemic."

Several people were worried that other agencies could raid the new CDC data for their own purposes. "Left unsaid is, who else and what other agencies will collect this information and how long will they keep it?" wrote John Clark of Highland, Mich. "The Patriot Act trumps CDC rules so all information collected will be available in the FBI, CIA, Mossad and Mayberry PD data banks."

Opposition over the plan comes amid new reports of the government bungling terrorist watch lists. Officials at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration acknowledged this week that 30,000 airline passengers have been mistakenly identified as people on federal watch lists.

A CDC spokeswoman said the agency is pleased that people are weighing in on its proposed rule but declined to respond to concerns. The agency plans to address public remarks after the comment period ends Jan. 30, and expects to issue a final rule by next spring, she said.

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