Sensitive information

Sensitive security information

Sensitive Security Information or SSI is a lesser form of Top Secret designation on information in the United States. This designation is assigned to information to limit the exposure of the information to individuals that “need to know” in order to participate in or oversee the protection of the nation’s transportation system. Those with a need to know can include persons outside of TSA, such as airport operators, aircraft operators, foreign vessel owners, and other persons.

Information designated as SSI cannot be shared with the general public, and it is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In May 2004 the TSA announced that the SSI designation was being expanded to include maritime security.


In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to take responsibility for the security of all modes of public transportation. Included in the responsibilities of this new agency was the authority to designate information as Sensitive Security Information (SSI). Originally housed in the Department of Transportation, the TSA was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a result of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.


There are 16 categories of SSI of which there are 3 types. 4 of the categories are termed “categorical” and are automatically designated as SSI. Eleven of the categories require a judgment or analysis to receive an SSI designation and one category is termed as ‘other’ and is determined by a written request from an authorized office.

For further information on the categories please see

Determining Sensitive Security Information

Information receiving SSI designation includes but is not limited to:

  • Security programs and contingency plans regarding any aircraft operator, airport operator, or fixed base operator security program.
  • Security contingency plans regarding any vessel, maritime facility, or port area.
  • National or area security plans.
  • Security incident response plans.
  • Security Directives issued by the TSA

Criticism of the SSI policies

In September of 2004, two members of the House Appropriations Committee requested that auditors review how the Homeland Security Department is using its authority to withhold transportation security information from the public. The concern is that material needs to be protected, but the public also needst to be advised of information that affects their safety and security.

Some examples in question were:

  • The TSA was had written responses to questions that were designated as sensitive security information, but did not treat the same information as sensitive the month earlier.
  • The TSA had said certain information related to the electronic screening of checked baggage at airports was SSI where this information had already been exposed to the public domain.

It was determined that the TSA's application of the SSI regulations has resulted in some disputes over airport security procedures, employee accountability, passenger screening, and airport secrecy agreements. Some believe that ‘’too much’’ information has been withheld from the public regarding some of these circumstances.

The resulting opinion was that sensitive material needs to be protected, but the public also needs to be informed of information that affects safety and security. "Although the release of certain sensitive information could put the nation's citizens and infrastructure at risk, the federal government should be mindful of the public's legitimate interest in, and right to know, information related to threats to the transportation system and associated vulnerabilities. Accordingly, access to this information should only be limited when it is necessary to guard against those who pose a threat and their ability to develop techniques to subvert security measures."


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