TSA pledges CAPPS II privacy

The controversial computer system that combs databases to assess the risk posed by individual airline passengers would not generate new intelligence or house the information in a database, a top Transportation Security Administration official told lawmakers May 6.

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II) would only use basic passenger information to verify identity and then determine risk, which is presented in a score and its corresponding color: red, yellow or green. The information would not be shared beyond TSA officials or necessary law enforcement, and the information will be destroyed after the passenger has traveled, said TSA Administrator Adm. James Loy.

"CAPPS II has the most potential to improve security and customer service," Loy testified before the House Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census.

The system would start with four pieces of passenger information, voluntarily given when passengers purchase airline tickets: name, address, phone number and date of birth. CAPPS II then combs databases to build a risk assessment score, Loy said. The limited tool is only looking for terrorist-related information and will check passenger information against crime databases.

However, Loy said there was potential to expand the system to include other forms of security screening. "This is a very focused tool, designed not without the potential to do other things if authorized," Loy told lawmakers. He also suggested the system could be expanded for use in all forms of travel.

CAPPS II would replace CAPPS, which Loy described as "seriously flawed and in need of replacement."

CAPPS II is expected to reduce random searches, confusion among people with names that match those on watch lists, and what some people call racial and gender profiling, Loy said. Currently, 15 percent of airline travelers undergo additional security screening, and the new system is intended to reduce that number, he said.

Loy said TSA has been working closely with Congress and privacy groups to ensure passengers' civil liberties are protected. "We can design a solid program where security and privacy are complementary goals," he said.

Also on May 6, Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Homeland Security Department, went before a Senate subcommittee to defend the program (see story).

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