- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

A top Homeland Security official yesterday defended an airline passenger profiling system criticized in a report, saying it should not be graded until tested, but privacy concerns have grounded that phase.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, flunked the Computer Assisted Pre-Screening Passenger System (CAPPS II) on seven of eight criteria set by Congress, including delays of the test.

“I believe the report given is incomplete,” said Asa Hutchison, a Homeland Security undersecretary.

Mr. Hutchison would not give new testing timelines or say when the program would be implemented. But he “hopes” that testing will be done this year.

“It’s fair to say there are obstacles in moving forward and the testing timelines will have to be adjusted,” he said.

The CAPPS II program is mandated by Congress to perform risk assessments of each passenger to predetermine terrorist threats using names, date of birth, addresses and phone numbers. Government data that has not been made public also will be used in the profile.

Passengers will be assigned color codes to advise airport workers of screening needs; green means normal, yellow requires additional screening, and those scoring red will be forbidden to fly.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is behind its testing schedule “due in large part to delays in obtaining passenger data needed for testing from air carriers because of privacy concerns,” the report said.

“So long as TSA insists upon using a secret, classified system to conduct background checks on passengers, the privacy issues can never be resolved,” said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Passengers wrongly flagged by the system must have a meaningful right of redress, but a secret system can never provide such a right.”

Officials concede that the program will have an inaccuracy rate of 4 percent. Critics of the program say that will ground, without reason, 4 million passengers.

American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel LaShawn Warren said the GAO report shows that CAPPS II deserves its own red rating and that the program “should not be allowed to fly.”

“The development of CAPPS II raises a number of concerns including whether individuals may be inappropriately targeted by the system for additional screening, and whether data accessed by the system may compromise the privacy of the traveling public,” the report said.

The report released yesterday said airlines are refusing to turn over passenger information, which effectively stalls all testing until the federal agency decides how to “compel” the data.

Recent revelations that JetBlue turned over passenger information to a Defense Department contractor for a profiling exercise and that Northwest Airlines gave passenger information for a similar study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have tarnished the public’s trust in the government’s use of private information.

“That highly public incident caused embarrassment,” Mr. Hutchison noted.

Federal officials will face a new wave of cumbersome regulations, public notices and input to get the program off the ground. However, a security directive “that requires no rule-making process can be issued with our own authority for the security of the airline” to force carriers to turn over passenger data, Mr. Hutchison said.

“We have not slowed down the level of effort to move forward. It would not serve the public well if we slowed down for whatever reason,” he said.

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