- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

The Transportation Security Administration plans to begin using a new computerized airline passenger identification system next summer despite efforts in Congress this week to require a more thorough review of privacy issues.

Under the system, airline passengers must provide more complete background information about themselves to buy a ticket, including their names, addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth.

Airline ticketing and reservations systems would transmit the information to a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) computer database, which would search for indicators of a terrorist.

The agency chief, retired Adm. James Loy, announced yesterday he would appoint an independent committee of citizens to monitor his agency’s handling of privacy issues. He also said passengers could appeal to the committee to resolve their complaints when they believe their privacy was invaded.

He made the announcement at a press briefing one day after a General Accounting Office report criticized the TSA for lax training and job skills among airport-security screeners.

In addition, on Wednesday a congressional conference committee suggested delaying the start date of the new passenger-screening system until a congressional review determines the system is effective without trampling privacy.

“This is an important endeavor for homeland security. But there are many troubling questions raised by such a system, not least of which is what information will the government use to determine threat level,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.

The TSA is testing the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) with “dummy data” before using it in airports nationwide next summer.

Current reservations systems vary among airlines. Some require only names and addresses. Others also require telephone numbers. None requires date of birth.

The TSA computer system uses secret mathematical algorithms to root out fake identifications and to give a statistical likelihood a passenger is a terrorist risk.

“The final risk assessment score is what we’re really interested in,” Adm. Loy said.

CAPPS II is the second version of an earlier system used primarily for identifying high-risk cargo.

The passenger advocacy desk should help alleviate the concerns of Congress and privacy groups, TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said.

“It’s an acknowledgement that some people might not trust their privacy to just the TSA or CAPPS II,” he said.

Adm. Loy also said the TSA has hired “performance appraisal” specialists that should alleviate concerns raised in the GAO report. He said the specialists are designing a training program that would monitor screener skills at identifying weapons and dangerous passengers.

Adm. Loy conceded there are gaps in airport security, such as X-ray machines unable to detect blades positioned in certain ways.

“I don’t dispute the fact that you can get a blade of a box cutter set on edge through the system,” Adm. Loy said. “That is a technology issue more than it’s a screener performance issue.”

He said the agency is focused on researching and developing better technology, but he acknowledged the agency diverted most of its $75 million research budget for 2003 to cover a deficit.

Diversion of the research and development budget drew criticism from Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

“Unfortunately, TSA also has had close to $75 million to do research and development, and I’m told they’ve only done a fraction of that.”

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