Monday, August 25, 2003

Conservative and liberal advocates are banding together to oppose new airline passenger screening methods that they say will be a “quantum leap” in government surveillance programs.

The program under development by the Transportation Security Administration would conduct background checks using a data system containing information on more than 2 million passengers flying daily in the country.

Bob Barr, a civil liberties advocate and former Republican congressman from Georgia, said the program seeks to “gather evidence on law-abiding citizens in vain hopes this will somehow magically identify terrorists.”

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, is a predecessor to the current program that critics say profiles air passengers for buying one-way tickets or using cash and established a “no fly” list preventing some passengers from flying.

This second-generation profiling technology would collect personal, commercial and government information — including credit records — to determine whether travelers posed any threat, said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office.

“Like Terrorism Information Awareness and the ill-fated citizen-spying program Operation TIPS, CAPPS II is based on the flawed premise that to catch the terrorists, we have to mine deep into law-abiding Americans’ personal information,” Ms. Murphy said.

The TSA would use the information to tag travelers. Green would indicate travelers deemed as posing no security risk; those tagged yellow would be subjected to heightened scrutiny; and those coming up red would be pulled aside or detained, she said.

“CAPPS II, as envisioned, would be a quantum leap in government surveillance,” Ms. Murphy said.

Terrorists could evade the system by using an alias. The system would forever imprint a “scarlet letter of potential threat” on a traveler, she said.

The groups outlined their opposition to the program during a press conference yesterday. They represented the American Conservative Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Americans for Tax Reform.

The TSA issued a written statement in response to the criticisms and said CAPPS II will not use bank records, records indicating “creditworthiness” or medical records.

“The mission of the CAPPS II system has been and always will be aviation security,” said the administration, part of the Homeland Security Department.

“As part of this commitment to keep the skies safe and defend the homeland, we have an absolute obligation to prevent terrorists and the most violent criminal fugitives from gaining access to our commercial aviation system,” the agency said. “CAPPS II will ensure that passengers do not sit next to known terrorists and wanted murderers.”

Critics said they see the potential for “mission creep” — passengers with outstanding criminal warrants also will be targeted. Mr. Barr questioned whether this “assault on privacy” will have ticket agents acting as law-enforcement officials and arresting passengers.

Hilary Shelton, spokesman for the Washington chapter of the NAACP, said the proposed system will collect a “black box” of data to discriminate against blacks, Muslims and low-income passengers who have “less than stellar credit histories.”

“Everyone who flies is affected by this in a very serious way,” said David Keene of the ACU.

CAPPS II was proposed in January, then revamped after criticism from a wide spectrum of groups, including those attending the press conference, the administration said.

“Their voices have been heard, and will continue to be heard” during the public comment period, which extends until the end of next month, the TSA said.

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