TSA prepares passenger screening system

The Transportation Security Administration next month plans to start testing a controversial computer system that will perform background checks and risk assessments on airline travelers.

Delta Air Lines and IBM Corp. are collaborating with TSA on the preliminary stages of a pilot project for the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening II program, called CAPPS II.

Until now, the agency has kept details of the program largely under wraps. As it moves closer to making CAPPS II a reality, however, officials are beginning to paint a picture of how the system will work.

Passengers will activate CAPPS II when they make flight reservations, with their travel information passing from airlines to TSA. The agency will then run individual searches, scanning government and commercial databases for data that could indicate a potential threat. Based on its findings, the agency will assign a red, yellow or green score to travelers, ultimately appearing on their boarding passes.

The determination for red—a branding that prevents passengers from flying—will rest on a watch list, compiled by intelligence and law enforcement authorities, officials said. TSA plans to automate the list—of "individuals that should deserve greater scrutiny," said Transportation Department Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, who outlined the program at a media briefing Feb. 26.

Passengers placed in the yellow category, meanwhile, will face additional screening before being allowed to board. "Green" passengers will be free to go, officials said. "We're trying to answer a simple question: Is this individual a known and rooted member of the community?" Jackson said.

Privacy advocates argue that CAPPS II could violate constitutional prohibitions and that TSA has yet to fully explain what will go into labeling a passenger a threat. Lawyers for the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the agency, saying it failed to disclose enough information about how the system will operate.

Transportation officials maintain that privacy issues are a top concern and insist that CAPPS II will not dig up irrelevant personal details. The system also will not house a new database or maintain files on passengers, officials said.

"We're not looking to see what videotapes you rent," Jackson said, comparing the system to a credit card check.

This much is certain: CAPPS II is a substantially advanced version of the system now in use, one that has been criticized for its seeming tendency to subject the elderly and children to increased scrutiny.

With the new system, the focus will turn to authenticating people's identities, being able to truly distinguish between two Mary Smiths, for example.

TSA expects to select a systems integrator for CAPPS II this month. IBM is developing the front-end architecture.

Although the program will progress gradually, the agency could make significant progress this year, Jackson said. The system received $35 million for fiscal 2003 — the same amount requested in the Bush administration's budget proposal for fiscal 2004.

CAPPS II eventually could spawn the Registered Traveler Program, which will allow certain credentialed and pre-screened passengers to speed through security checkpoints in airports.

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