Senate eyes CAPPS II privacy

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 by combing government and commercial databases to assess the risk airline travelers pose.

Privacy advocates and some lawmakers have questioned the constitutionality of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II) program 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 on the program's expected impact on the flying public within 90 days of passing the Air Cargo Security Bill. The CAPPS II language is part of that bill.

"It's a matter of good public policy for the privacy and civil liberties implications of this program to be reported to Congress," Wyden said in a news release.

As soon as a person buys an airline ticket, CAPPS II begins culling available data for suspicious behavior. The system will brand passengers red, yellow or green — colors that will appear on their boarding passes. Travelers branded with red will be prevented from flying.

The Transportation Security Administration "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."

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