Hutchinson: No 'elitism' in CAPPS II

A Homeland Security Department (DHS) official dismissed the specter of "elitism" that senators raised in a hearing May 6 about the Transportation Security Administration's new traveler screening system.

They expressed concern that the government could begin imposing economic prejudice on the flying public if credit ratings are included in the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening II (CAPPS II) program.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee, strongly advised that CAPPS II not rope in "credit-worthiness" or "personal indebtedness" factors in screening airline passengers.

"It would be odd and it would smack of elitism," Byrd warned Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at DHS.

Hutchinson said flatly that CAPSS II would not incorporate personal finance details on airline passengers. Were that the case, "I might not be allowed to fly myself," he quipped.

Further, Hutchinson stressed that CAPSS II would not hold any personal data on travelers aside from that contained in the terrorist watch list.

And though CAPSS II may comb commercial databases for other pertinent information on passengers, that data will "remain outside the CAPSS II firewall," he said. "The goal is to verify a passenger's identity. Personal data will not be collected or retained."

Hutchinson offered no further details on exactly what information may be gleaned from private databases but pledged to provide Congress with CAPSS II guidelines before TSA's system is rolled out.

The hearing also underscored what several politicians view as a gross disparity between funding for airport safety and funds earmarked for maritime and other transportation modes.

Out of TSA's $4.8 billion budget, $86 million is dedicated to efforts to increase maritime and seaport security, several senators noted.

Hutchinson acknowledged the differences in funding levels but stressed that DHS right now is focused on assessing systems and security personnel in place at the nation's ports. Once these assessments are complete, funding for information technology and security personnel at seaports may well increase, he said.

Also on May 6, TSA Administrator James Loy went before a House subcommittee to defend CAPPS II (see story).

Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

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