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TSA clears racial-profiling app for takeoff

Erik S. Lesser/AP

This story was updated to include a comment from TSA.

Next week, passengers will have the option to report racial or religious profiling by Transportation Security Administration screeners through an iPhone app developed by human rights advocates that, according to emails obtained by Nextgov, federal officials say they will honor as actionable complaints.

The FlyRight tool was inspired by Sikh activists' concerns that turban-wearing passengers routinely are subjected to additional screening at U.S. airports, even after they successfully passed through body scanners. The Sikh Coalition, a civil and human rights organization, created the app to more easily document the abundance of profiling. The group intends to monitor if TSA or its supervisor, the Homeland Security Department, addresses the problem.

A prototype of the program states, "FlyRight was created to provide a quick and easy way to report complaints of air travel discrimination in real time, right after an incident occurs."

Users are prompted with some questions geared specifically toward Sikhs. But the app also elicits accounts of discrimination from members of all communities who feel their rights have been violated, including Muslims, Latinos and African-Americans. Co-founder Amardeep Singh said the coalition sought feedback from the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during development.

On April 30, the app will be officially unveiled at an event in Washington hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Sikh Coalition.

Homeland Security officials in January critiqued screenshots of the prototype, Singh said. "To their credit, there was not one time in my correspondence with DHS that they said it wouldn't be considered as a cognizable complaint," he added.

The app walks passengers through an interactive checklist of behaviors characteristic of profiling. After completing the brief survey, users have the option of submitting their reports to the government and the coalition, or just one or the other.

The questions match, verbatim, incident report questionnaires on the official TSA and DHS websites. The two sites let users either fill out complaint forms for online submission, or send emails with the same answers to TSAExternalCompliance@dhs.gov or crcl@dhs.gov.

The coalition's app functions as an email sender. After smartphone users fill out the standard questionnaire on their phones for the government, the app sends the reports to the two email addresses, Singh said.

Jeffrey S. Blumberg, compliance branch director with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said the app-submitted complaints sound as if they contain all the necessary information to qualify as official complaints for potential investigation, according to a November 2011 email that Nextgov reviewed. The coalition and DHS officials have since tested the tool to ensure it is compatible with the government's system, Singh said.

The app allows fliers to describe the type of discrimination they believe they have experienced by checking off race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality or disability. There is a box for identifying the airport where the event occurred, as well as noting the date and approximate time of the incident.

Users are asked to click a circle indicating whether they walked through a body scanner and, if so, were they required to go through additional screening. The form elicits details suggestive of possible discriminatory action, such as "My religious garb/clothing was patted down by a TSA official" or "My religious garb/clothing was ordered removed."

The app has space for the name and badge number of the TSA officer involved, if known. The program also points users to resources on TSA's official site that enumerate passenger rights on, for example, security screening of head coverings.

Plans are under way to launch the app soon in Google's Android Market, Singh said.

On Tuesday, TSA officials said the agency does not profile passengers on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. "We continually engage with community organizations, including the Sikh Coalition, and individuals to help us understand unique passenger concerns and we support efforts to gather passenger feedback about the screening process," TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said in a statement. "We encourage any traveler with a concern about potential discrimination to contact TSA directly through our numerous channels of communication."

He said passengers can relay comments to a supervisor or customer support manager at the airport, submit feedback online or file a civil rights complaint with TSA.

The original story misstated the name of the FlyRights app. It has been corrected.

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