Congress gives TSA a red light

Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System Faces Significant Implementation Challenges

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Privacy advocates and lawmakers have called for the halt of a controversial airline passenger screening program following a scathing review by congressional auditors.

A bipartisan group of 22 House members led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) sent a letter Feb. 13 to the Transportation Security Administration calling for the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) II to be suspended indefinitely until concerns about its effectiveness and dangers to civil liberties, particularly in the data collected and cases of identify theft, are addressed.

"New powers granted to government anti-terror initiatives must require that the power is necessary to thwart future attacks, and that the benefit of the new power outweighs its adverse effect on liberty," the letter states. "CAPPS II fails both of these


Homeland Security Department officials defended CAPPS II despite a General Accounting Office report released earlier this month highlighting flaws in the system's planning. Privacy advocates said the report confirmed their concerns that CAPPS II lacks adequate privacy protections.

DHS' undersecretary for border and transportation security, Asa Hutchinson, defended the system, noting that it is being developed in response to a congressional mandate. GAO's report was premature, Hutchinson said at a media roundtable, and "has given us an incomplete grade until we can fulfill our responsibility for testing."

He said DHS officials also plan to establish an external review board to oversee that the privacy provisions are being followed and the appeals process is working effectively. CAPPS II "will not be implemented until it has undergone a rigorous and complete testing to demonstrate its effectiveness [and prove] that it has the capability of properly protecting passenger information," Hutchinson said.

GAO officials found that TSA officials were behind schedule in testing and initial operating capability.

Further, TSA officials have not developed a sound project plan for the cost and delivery of the remaining phases, making it unclear when and how CAPPS II will be completed, the report states. They also have yet to effectively address the accuracy of the systems' databases or processes for fixing incorrect passenger data, it states.

The report identified additional challenges, including securing the international cooperation needed to gather passenger data and managing possible mission creep as the system expands from finding international terrorists to tracking immigrants and rooting out criminals. Officials also need to ensure that CAPPS II can identify passengers who try to use other individuals' information to slip by the system, GAO's report states.

In response to the report, privacy advocates urged lawmakers to stop development of CAPPS II until these issues are addressed. The report "cries out for Congress to step up and say the program has more problems than anticipated," said Bob Barr, former Georgia congressman and consultant with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Congress should, at a minimum, be halting it immediately at least for the time being, if not permanently."

Officials at the Center for Democracy and Technology called for a "ground-up redesign," saying TSA should start over and work with privacy advocates and industry representatives to develop an effective system that also protects privacy. Barry Steinhardt, director of ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, said union members welcome discussions with TSA officials on an effective way to secure airline travel but CAPPS II is not the answer.

"A more sophisticated, more accurate, more useful system for tracking actual terrorists may make sense," Steinhardt said. "CAPPS II is not that system."

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