High-Tech Scrutiny Raises Concern

Details of new passenger screening system worry some in travel industry

By: By R. Scott Macintosh

An airport screening system that would generate extensive background checks on passengers has caused widespread confusion in the travel industry and raised concerns about privacy rights.

The Transportation Security Administration is working with Delta Air Lines to develop the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) program, which may become a standard security technology in the commercial airline industry.

“The vision driving the program is to create a system that keeps people like Mohammed Atta from getting onboard an airplane,” said Brian Turmail, a TSA spokesman. Atta was one of the 9/11 hijackers.

But misinformation about the program and the initial public backlash has caused the TSA to offer more details about the closely guarded program.

CAPPS II, which Lockheed is developing with a $12.8 million contract from the TSA, is expected to be operational in the first half of 2004. It is intended to replace the current random screenings.

At issue is the “data-mining” technology, which checks databases for everything from credit history to criminal records and then assigns a color code to each passenger.

A green code will prompt normal scrutiny; yellow, increased scrutiny and red, law enforcement involvement.

The program, now just weeks into a four-month test period with Delta, has created an uproar among privacy rights activists and travel industry organizations.

A “Boycott Delta” Web site was created to protest the involvement of a private company in a government program that collects information on people.

And a recent survey of more than 250 members of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives found 82 percent of the respondents felt CAPPS II would be an invasion of privacy.

“CAPPS II is a giant suspicion-generating machine, because its job is to sit there and look at things and grade people,” said Lee Tien, a privacy rights attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There’s been a tremendous amount of secrecy. What are we, the public, supposed to think if you can’t be honest and upfront about it?”

Although it was widely believed that the CAPPS II program was being tested in three undisclosed airports, the TSA says it is being tested in “cyberspace,” to see if the administration’s computer system can connect to an airline’s system.

Also, some reports said the data would be held for 50 years.

The TSA, however, said information would be kept on any traveler who receives a red security rating but everyone else’s data would be deleted once the plane reaches its destination.

The TSA has done little to ease concerns, since many details about how the information will be used and who will access it have yet to be answered.

“A lot of stuff is public information,” said Jack Riepe, a spokesman for the travel executives organization. “But there are very few places that can access all of it at the same time.”

Also unresolved is an admitted flaw: if someone is flagged in error, there is little that can be done to correct the situation the next time around.

“You know how hard it can be to do anything about a rumor or malicious gossip,” Tien said. “The problem will be magnified when we start to rely on data-mining for making social decisions.”

The TSA and the travel executives group have been working on a frequent flier program to aid business travelers, but that has been delayed until the first portion of the CAPS II program is completed next year.