TSA awards passenger screening contract

In the name of aviation safety, the Transportation Security Administration has tapped Lockheed Martin Corp. to build a controversial system that will perform background checks, combing government and commercial databases to assess the risk posed by airline passengers.

Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems will develop the technology infrastructure for and administer the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening II program, called CAPPS II. TSA officials believe the system will help security staff focus on the few individuals who deserve closer scrutiny, rather than relying on random checks.

The system activates as soon as a person buys a ticket. The agency will then use CAPPS II to assign a color-coded threat level to each passenger.

The existing program, managed by the airlines, provides rudimentary abilities to examine the information travelers supply, including their payment method and reservation dates. Activities such as purchasing a one-way ticket with cash are supposed to trigger a response.

CAPPS II will take full advantage of the Internet to scan government watch lists, financial records and other personal data available online, looking for any suspicious behavior.

The agency has not released details of how such a search would be conducted, but the system will analyze names, addresses and other data to determine if a traveler could be dangerous.

CAPPS II will focus on authenticating people's identities, being able to truly distinguish between two "Mary Smiths," for example, officials said. Under the new regimen, airlines will ask passengers for more information, such as a phone number and date of birth, to better ensure that the person who shows up for a flight is also the one whose name appears on the ticket.

"If today I buy a ticket, it usually says "Loy, J." and I am required to provide a photo ID, and I can provide that photo ID maybe from — I got it from the same guy that sold me the watch in Battery Park yesterday morning," said Adm. James Loy, undersecretary of transportation for security, speaking Jan. 22 at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "And my concern in that regard is that it is an inadequate identification system today."

With CAPPS II, TSA will code passengers red, yellow or green — colors that will appear on their boarding passes.

Travelers branded with red will be prevented from flying. That determination will rest on a watch list, compiled by intelligence and law enforcement authorities, of "individuals that should deserve greater scrutiny," said Transportation Department Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, who outlined the program Feb. 26 at a media briefing.

Passengers placed in the yellow category will face additional screening before they're allowed to board. "Green" travelers 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 civil liberties and that TSA has yet to explain what will go into labeling a passenger a threat.

"That is completely uncharted waters," said Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), whose lawyers sued TSA last year for failing to fully disclose how the system will operate. "When you're trying to understand people's behaviors that immediately raises all sorts of constitutional questions."

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 travelers, officials said.

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

But critics have a different comparison in mind: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Total Information Awareness program (TIA), in theory, would enable national security analysts to detect, classify, track, understand and preempt terrorist attacks against the United States by drawing on surveillance and spotting patterns in public and private transactions.

In January, the Senate approved an amendment introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) blocking TIA's use unless Congress specifically authorizes it after the Bush administration submits a report about the program's effect on privacy.

Government watchdog groups expect CAPPS II to receive similar scrutiny. "Like with TIA, I don't think this kind of thing can be accomplished without legislation," said Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., director of technology policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian, market-oriented think tank. "The private sector is not obligated to turn information over to the government. Commerce in the Information Age depends on the ability to make reasonable assurances with regards to privacy."

TSA's system has caught Wyden's attention as well. "He said before he believes TIA is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of government surveillance," said Wyden spokeswoman Carol Guthrie.

What debate will ensue remains to be seen, but the agency is moving ahead.

IBM Corp., which has been working on CAPPS II's front-end architecture, and Delta Air Lines are collaborating with TSA on the preliminary stages of a pilot project, slated for this month. Lockheed, meanwhile, received a five-year task order, worth $12.8 million, to get the system off the ground.

A Lockheed official said the company looks forward to assisting the agency with the program, but otherwise declined to comment.

President Bush established TSA in November 2001 when he signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, legislation that also authorized CAPPS II. The program subsequently received $35 million for fiscal 2003 — the same amount requested in the Bush administration's budget proposal for fiscal 2004.

"We think the focus should be on finding weapons," EPIC's Kshirsagar said. "We shouldn't be leaving airport security to computer programs." n

Online protests Privacy activist Bill Scannell, the force behind the successful boycott of Adobe Systems Inc. during a digital copyright trial in 2001, has launched a new campaign. He is protesting Delta Air Lines' involvement with the Transportation Security Administration's program to build a computer system that will perform background checks and risk assessments on airline travelers. Scannell is shunning Delta and hopes others will do the same — a stance promoted on a new Web site, BoycottDelta.org. In addition to supplying information on TSA's program, the site suggests fellow protestors take actions, including divesting themselves of Delta stock, calling the airline and "wearing their support" by purchasing T-shirts and stickers online that proclaim "Boycott Delta." Delta is collaborating with the agency on a pilot project to test the system, Transportation Department officials said.

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