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Sun, Jun 15, 2003

Under Fire, TSA Changes Screening Procedures

Revised CAPPS II Called "Less Intrusive"

I'm just another consensus on the street
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
And I feel like a number
Feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
A stranger in this land
I feel like a number
I'm not a number
I'm not a number
Dammit I'm a man
I said I'm a man

-Bob Seger, "Feel Like A Number"

Before you board a commercial flight, the government wants to know it has your number. It's been that way ever since Sept. 11, 2001. But under a new plan described in Saturday's Washington Post, the government may decide it wants to know just a little less about you than before.

CAPPS II, a plan controversial since its inception, was to use government computers, private databases (such as credit bureau information), courthouse records and even artificial intelligence to predict which passenger might pose a threat to air travel. The information gathered would have been on the books for up to 50 years.

The system was so controversial that it sparked more than 200 letters to the TSA from influential organizations and individuals protesting the highly intrusive nature of the second-generation Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II).

That Ain't Gonna Fly

Now, the Post reports those involved in the original concept no longer work for the agency. CAPPS II itself has been modified to be less intrusive - "kinder and gentler," to coin a phrase. The Post reports it will depend on commercial databases rather than government computer information. Passenger identities will be confirmed using a mathematical program developed by the TSA itself. The successor to CAPPS II will still assign a "risk score" to each passenger, indicating the likelihood that a passenger is who he says he is and whether he has verifiable roots in the community where he claims to live.

Details of the new plan are expected to be published in the Federal Register next week. A draft of the document, obtained by the Post, indicates the TSA will clearly define and narrow the information gathered, how it is used and who gets to see it.

"We care about those issues, and we're addressing them," one senior government official said in an interview with the Washington newspaper.

Back in March, the TSA and Delta Airlines launched a secretive test of CAPPS II v.1 at three undisclosed airports across the country. When asked about the results of the testing, neither Delta nor the TSA would comment. Also in March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a statement saying those of us who are less than rich or who have less than perfect credit scores would be unfairly targeted by CAPPS.

New Leadership, Softer Attitude

The CAPPS II program - or whatever it becomes - is now led by a new group in the Office of National Risk Assessment. The group describes itself as "privacy-centric," influenced by "issues raised in the comments received, particularly the accuracy, efficiency, and privacy impact of the proposed CAPPS II system."

"A little glimmer of faith in the U.S. government has been restored to me," said Bill Scannell, whose website, boycottdelta.org, targeted the airline for its cooperation with the CAPPS II program. "It's nice to know that there are now people within Homeland Security that have taken the time to read the Bill of Rights. They are going back to square one and are doing now what they should have done before: to see if it's even possible to devise a passenger screening system that will not only work, but not destroy our rights as Americans in the process."

Still, CAPPS II is fast turning into the biggest domestic surveillance system ever created by the federal government. It will require passengers to disclose their full names, home addresses, telephone numbers and birthdates. The details will be fed into commercial databases like Lexis-Nexis and Acxiom. The system then uses those gee-whiz TSA math models and other methods to assess the passenger's threat potential and report back to the government. After that, the commercial database providers would not be allowed to keep any of the information "in a commercially usable form," according to the draft obtained by the Post. It's not yet clear whether this information will be archived by the data providers, nor is it clear how long that information will remain on file.

Privacy advocates are still skeptical about the impact such a system will have on the everyday lives of people who have nothing to do with terrorism or threats to the national transportation infrastructure. Lara Flint, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said she welcomes the announcement but wants to "see proof they're standing by the commitments they have made. It's important that TSA go forward with an open process in order to gain trust."

Suing The TSA

Last Wednesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a lawsuit against the federal government, citing the Freedom of Information Act in a request for details on just how CAPPS II v.2 will impact civil liberties. EPIC's general counsel, David Sobel, tells the Post questions include how the government will deal with innacurate information, a long-time problem in private databases such as credit bureaus.

"Millions of air passengers may soon have vast amounts of their personal data scrutinized by CAPPS II," Sobel said in a prepared statement. "It is time for the government to be more forthcoming about this system and its likely impact on privacy rights."

FMI: www.tsa.dot.gov/public/index.jsp, www.epic.org

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