- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

The Homeland Security Department this week is starting to classify all airline passengers according to their security risk as it warns that terrorists may be planning to hijack airliners.

But unlike previous warnings, this one is doing little to disrupt travel plans, with airline ticket sales proceeding at a normal rate.

“Since 9/11, we’ve seen many different alerts,” said Tom Parsons, chief executive officer of Bestfares.com, the Internet-based airline ticket sales outlet. “The John Q. Publics are starting to live their lives around these alerts.”

The latest warning says terrorists working in cells of five appear to be trying to hijack an airplane in the United States, Europe or Australia. They would use common items, such as cameras, that have concealed modifications to be used as weapons, the alert says.

Better security by the Transportation Security Administration has eased fears of many travelers, Mr. Parsons said. In addition, penalties of at least $100 create a disincentive for canceling or changing flights.

Any drop in sales from “white-knuckle travelers” with security concerns “might be a minor effect, but not very much,” Mr. Parsons said.

Travel agents in the Washington area reported similar reactions among their customers.

“The people who are going to travel are going to travel,” said Guido Adelfio, owner of Bethesda Travel Center. “I haven’t seen anybody that’s very apprehensive, nor have I seen anyone changing their planes.”

Nevertheless, an airline industry official, who asked not to be named, advised against ignoring the Homeland Security Department’s warning.

“I believe it’s serious,” he said. “I believe it’s clear they have some information. They’re asking the industry to be very vigilant.”

The government’s latest effort to prevent terrorist attacks is worrying privacy advocates.

They say the computerized system for classifying passengers according to their security risk could lead to unconstitutional invasions of privacy and database mix-ups. As a result, innocent people could be targeted as potential terrorists.

Nuala O’Connor Kelly, the department’s chief privacy officer, said the program has been reworked so that less personal information will be checked. People will be able to write or call to find out what information about them has been put in the database, Mrs. Kelly said. That was not the case under the original plan.

The program will be tested for several months at a secure government location. No date for implementation has been announced.

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System was ordered by Congress after the September 11 attacks. It originally was conceived as a nationwide computer system that would compare passenger names with those on government watch lists and check such things as a traveler’s credit report and consumer transactions.

The newest version of the system will not use credit histories or medical information.

Privacy advocates say the database could be used for other purposes. For example, information obtained about airline passengers could be used to arrest criminals, said David Sobel, spokesman for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“It’s certainly an improvement in some ways, but opening the door to uses beyond aviation security certainly raises some serious concerns,” Mr. Sobel said.

Under the program, an airline passenger would be required to provide name, date of birth, address and phone number. That information would be checked against the government database and, through a private company, publicly available commercial databases to determine a security threat level.

Congress recently expressed skepticism about whether the program will work and whether citizens’ privacy would be adequately protected. House and Senate negotiators last week agreed to require the Homeland Security Department to first demonstrate that the program meets requirements of due process, accuracy and privacy before it can be started.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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