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Privacy vs. safety in screening travelers

SHOULD THE federal government compile a registry of the names and addresses of every airline passenger in America who requests a kosher meal? This could be the reality if the Transportation Security Administration proceeds with a system to build databases of personal dossiers on Americans who take airline flights. In late 2001, Congress mandated that the Transportation Security Administration create a Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, known as CAPPS 2. The first CAPPS system triggered alerts on nine of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. However, Federal Aviation Administration regulations required merely checking their baggage to confirm that they were not carrying explosives on board. Even though the feds had received numerous warnings of an Arab hijacking conspiracy in the works, the FAA did not alert airlines or require additional security procedures for people who triggered computer alerts.

Because the feds screwed up massively, the obvious Washington solution is to sacrifice more of Americans' privacy. CAPPS 2 aimed to create a database including the names, credit card numbers, addresses, meal preferences, and other details for every airline passenger.

The Transportation Security Administration initially planned to search the medical records of every airline passenger but backed away after public protests. The goal was to create a color rating and "risk profile" of every passenger.

The agency also planned to use CAPPS 2 to trigger alerts for anyone wanted for federal crimes. The Washington Post reported in September 2003 that an "estimated 1 to 2 percent [of airline passengers] will be labeled `red' and will be prohibited from boarding. These passengers also will face police questioning and may be arrested." The agency insisted that the number of people detained would not be that high.

Because of intense criticism, a Homeland Security Department spokesman says that CAPPS 2 will be "reconfigured." However, the feds are moving forward with a plan to achieve the same results that CAPPS 2 intended.

The Transportation Security Administration has starkly proven that it cannot be trusted to deal with Americans' confidential information. Last summer, the agency's chief, James Loy, revealed in an off-the-record briefing that JetBlue airline had turned over 1.5 million passengers' records to an Army contractor for testing a prototype for airline passenger screening.

The Transportation Security Administration angrily denied having any involvement in the JetBlue data transfer. Spokesman Brian Turmail scorned critics: "People have used irresponsible scare tactics to stop the testing of CAPPS 2."

But a Department of Homeland Security investigation discovered the agency did request in writing that JetBlue turn over its passenger data to the Army subcontractor. The report concluded that "TSA employees involved acted without appropriate regard for individual privacy interests or the spirit of the Privacy Act of 1974."

The agency responded by announcing that all of its employees would take part in a "privacy education week" program entitled, "Respecting Privacy, Preserving Freedoms."

The agency continued denying allegations that it was sweeping up Americans' personal information. However, in congressional testimony in June, acting director David Stone revealed that six airlines and two large online travel agencies had provided information for testing CAPPS 2 to the agency or to government contractors.

The General Accounting Office reported in February that CAPPS 2 will be unable either to stop terrorists or protect privacy. GAO found that the Transportation Security Administration failed to adequately address seven out of eight key congressional concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union's Barry Steinhardt complained: "Instead of zeroing in on suspects based on real evidence of wrongdoing, it sweeps every airline passenger through a dragnet." Instead of permitting the agency to build a database on the American public, it would be more effective and less intrusive to simply run the list of airline passenger names against the feds' terrorism watch list (which is still being compiled). Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers flew under their own names, and if such a watch list check had been done three years ago, the attacks may have been at least partially thwarted.

The feds should not be permitted to rename the current system "CAPPS 3" and pretend all its problems have been solved. The agency has shown that it cannot be trusted to go ferreting among Americans' records. Any "solution" which does not curb the agency's power will pose a growing threat to Americans' rights and privacy.

James Bovard is author of "The Bush Betrayal" and seven other books.  

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