Senators call for CAPPS oversight

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved an amendment March 13 that would require congressional oversight of a controversial computer system that will perform background checks, combing government and commercial databases to assess the risk posed by airline travelers.

The Transportation Security Administration tapped Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems earlier this month to get the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening II program, called CAPPS II, off the ground. TSA officials believe the system will help security staff focus on the few individuals who deserve closer scrutiny, rather than relying on random checks.

Privacy advocates and some lawmakers have questioned the constitutionality of CAPPS II and demanded more information on how the system will work.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced the amendment, which requires Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to report to Congress within 90 days on the program's expected impact on the flying public. Ridge must address how TSA will use individual information and what safeguards the agency will implement.

"I'm all in favor of finding ways to be smarter about aviation security and to target aviation security resources more efficiently," Wyden said in a news release. "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."

CAPPS II activates as soon as a person buys a ticket, taking full advantage of the Internet to scan government watch lists, financial records and other personal data available online, looking for any suspicious behavior. The system will analyze names, addresses and other data, coding passengers red, yellow or green — colors that will appear on their boarding passes.

Travelers branded with red will be prevented from flying, a determination resting on a watch list compiled by intelligence and law enforcement authorities, officials said. Passengers placed in the yellow category will face additional screening before they're allowed to board. "Green" travelers will be free to go.

"TSA has sought to meet the urgent need to heighten security at airports as we press the war against terrorists," James Loy, undersecretary of transportation for security, said in a March 11 news release. "We will accomplish this without compromising the privacy and civil liberties enjoyed by every American."

Critics remain unconvinced and have compared CAPPS II to 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 another Wyden amendment, blocking TIA's use unless Congress specifically authorizes it after the Bush administration submits a report about the program's effects on privacy.

The CAPPS II language is now part of the Air Cargo Security Bill.


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