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Senate Wants Oversight of CAPPS II Program

Senator Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.), who earlier this year spearheaded an effort to cut off funding for the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program, won Senate Commerce Committee approval last week of an amendment to require Congressional oversight of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) being developed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Concerned that the CAPPS II program could violate the privacy and civil liberties of the flying public, Wyden introduced the amendment to require the Secretary of Homeland Security to report to Congress within 90 days on what impact the CAPPS II program will have on the privacy and civil liberties of United States citizens, including how individual information will be used and what safeguards will be implemented to protect the publics rights.

As proposed by the TSA, would scan government and commercial databases for potential terrorist threats when a passenger makes flight reservations. Under the program, airline passengers will be required to provide their full name plus address, phone number and date of birth.

Once that information is entered, the airline computer reservation system will automatically link to the TSA for a computer background check on the traveler that can include a credit, banking history and criminal background check.

The TSA will then assign a red, yellow or green score to the passenger based on the agency's risk assessment of the traveler. The score color will then be encrypted on the passenger's boarding pass. A green score will allow passengers to proceed through the usual airport security checks. Passengers with a yellow score will be subjected to additional security checks and a red score will ground the passenger.

"I'm all in favor of finding ways to be smarter about aviation security and to target aviation security resources more efficiently," said Wyden. "But a system that seeks out information on every air traveler or anyone who poses a possible risk to U.S. security, and then uses that information to assign a possible threat 'score' to each one, raises some very serious privacy questions. It's a matter of good public policy for the privacy and civil liberties implications of this program to be reported to Congress."

The Wyden amendment will require a written report from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, in consultation with Attorney General John Ashcroft, to the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Specific issues that must be addressed in the report include:

  • how long collected data will be maintained and who will have access to that data;
  • how TSA will treat the scores obtained on individual travelers and under what circumstances, if any, the scores will be shared with entities outside TSA;
  • the role of the airlines and other private companies in implementing the system, and their access to information on individual passengers;
  • what safeguards will be in place to guarantee that the information will be used only as officially intended;
  • what efforts will be in place to mitigate errors and what procedural recourse will be available to passengers who believe they were wrongfully barred from a flight; and,
  • what oversight procedures will be in place to guarantee that privacy and civil liberty concerns will be a priority as the program is installed, operated and updated.