Beware of the watchdog

In the past 18 months, most airline passengers have been more than willing to sacrifice a little convenience in the name of safety. The Transportation Security Administration bets they are willing to sacrifice privacy as well.

That's the premise anyway of TSA's Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS) II program, which Lockheed Martin Corp. will develop in the coming months to serve as a watchdog for the aviation industry.

The program, which will receive passenger data from airline systems, will search government watch lists, financial records and other databases, looking for suspicious activity. The system will then assign a red, yellow or green threat level to passengers. Red indicates that a passenger cannot board an airplane; yellow will trigger close scrutiny of a passenger.

That's how TSA officials describe CAPPS II. What they won't say is exactly what databases will be checked and how the system will determine the risk level, and that is cause for concern.

CAPPS II, some people might argue, is a different animal than the Total Information Awareness program, which Congress recently halted. TIA, as envisioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, would track public and private transactions in search of anything that links an individual to terrorist activity.

TSA seeks far less latitude with CAPPS II. The system would only investigate individuals when they buy tickets and, according to TSA officials, would keep no information on file. It's analogous to a credit check, they argue. But CAPPS II is not a different animal than TIA — it's just being put on a shorter leash.

CAPPS II, like TIA, could easily be abused. Troves of information are available on everyone through LexisNexis and other commercial databases. But such databases could be used by federal agencies to harass individuals who are viewed as hostile to government policies, as defined by any administration in power.

The same could be done with CAPPS II if TSA is not held accountable. Americans are likely willing to give up a little privacy for security's sake, but Congress must ensure that safeguards are in place so the watchdog does not turn on its owners.

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