- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

A plan for a computerized screening program that would allocate every airline passenger a terrorist-threat rating is the subject of a congressional inquiry — and will not be funded unless it passes muster.

The second-generation Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, known as CAPPS II, is the subject of a probe by Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, said congressional staff of both parties and GAO investigators.

Language in two funding bills, one already completed, forbids spending any money on the program until it addresses lawmakers’ concerns.

CAPPS II would divide passengers into three categories: green, screened normally at the gate; yellow, given extra screening; and red. Transportation Security Administration officials said passengers with a red rating would be forbidden to fly and would be questioned at the airport by law-enforcement officials.

The program would compare personal data about passengers collected by airlines — name, address, date of birth and telephone number — with commercial databases held by marketing companies and others.

Mathematical formulas called algorithms would be used to combine and cross-check all kinds of data about every passenger — how long he or she has lived at an address, for example — but also intelligence information about individuals and groups. The program then comes up with a threat score, a bit like a credit rating, for each traveler.

CAPPS II, initially announced in January this year, would replace two earlier systems administered by airlines. The “no-fly list,” identifying individuals suspected of terror links or barred for other reasons, and CAPPS I, which checks a range of data about the trip and compares the passenger’s name against a federal “watch list” of terrorist suspects.

The TSA said the new system will be a significant improvement, but CAPPS II is the subject of a firestorm of protest from privacy and citizens’ rights advocates on the both the left and — more worrisome for the administration — the right. Critics claim it would violate travelers’ privacy and Fourth Amendment rights.

“It’s becoming increasingly apparent,” said David Keene of the American Conservative Union, “that [Homeland Security Secretary Tom] Ridge and his colleagues are behaving like any other bureaucrats,” trying to expand their responsibilities and their power over citizens as far as they can.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist concurred, calling CAPPS II “a bad idea which will collapse into bigger, worse ideas.” Former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, said the plan will do “irreversible damage” to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

Critics also charge that the system will not make the airways safer — terrorists can get around it by simple identity theft — and may encourage a dangerous complacency by letting security staff believe they know who the potentially risky travelers are.

Congressional Republicans acknowledge these worries but say the administration — with gentle prodding from Congress — is doing everything it can to alleviate them.

“The administration and Congress have bent over backwards to accommodate the concerns of critics worried about the privacy and civil liberties impact of the program,” Gary Burns, spokesman for the House Aviation Subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Mica, Florida Republican, told UPI.

No one at the TSA was available to comment, but the anonymous official said the agency already had revised the plan to deal with some criticisms.

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