Group proposes CAPPS II alternative

A Risk-Based Airport Security Policy

The creation of a two-tiered passenger screening and registered traveler program could serve as an alternative to the controversial computer system that combs databases to assess the risk posed by individual airline passengers, according to a report issued last week.

The Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank, proposed a risk-based alternative to the Transportation Security Administration's Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) II. The group's system would check each traveler's information against terrorist watch lists and airline databases and separate travelers into two groups based on risk.

Under the proposal, frequent travelers could become registered travelers and breeze through checkpoints by opting for extensive background checks, including employment and credit history. High-risk travelers would have their boarding passes electronically flagged and receive extra scrutiny, although they would wait in the same lines as ordinary travelers.

"It hopefully would be a middle ground for most Americans," said Robert Poole, founder and transportation studies director at the Reason Foundation and the report's author. "This information is already available to airlines so it's not poking around in people's lives."

TSA officials have discussed the registered traveler option as a future extension of the CAPPS II program. Frequent travelers would be given identification cards with biometric data, such as iris scans or face geometry, which would be confirmed before boarding. Medium-risk travelers — which would include most passengers — and high-risk travelers would be screened in the same lines.

The idea is that the system would minimize hassles for frequent travelers, while resources could be focused where risk is greater.

Poole said his group is challenging the idea that all passengers should be treated equally. "That's a very nice idea, but in fact, to do that, it inconveniences everyone and it wastes resources," he said.

Mihir Kshirsagar, policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the system increases the chances of identity theft. "The first thing a terrorist would do is get a registered traveler status," he said. "If you have someone with a trusted identity, that identity becomes that much more valuable."

Robert Levy, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, said terrorists may be able to create a registered traveler card or bribe officials for cards. "These guys are not stupid, the terrorists," he said. "They are quite capable of entering one of these programs and getting one of these cards."

Kshirsagar cautioned that if the system makes travel easier, it increases the chances it may be expanded to other forms of transportation or security clearances. For example, a grocery store owner or club manager may only want patrons with the identity card to enter after a certain time at night, Kshirsagar said.

Although the initial security clearance is voluntary, there could be mounting pressures on travelers to offer personal information as they see fellow travelers zipping through lines, Kshirsagar said. "You're almost forced to do it. If you don't want to be hassled, you'll give it up to get that card," he said.

Similarly, if few travelers opt for background checks, officials may increase the scrutiny at security checks as a way to persuade more participants to register, Levy said. Security officials "will make the alternative repugnant," he said. "Everyone will be strip-searched at the airport. That would certainly become an incentive to enroll in the program."

However, Levy called the idea a "decent alternative, given the environment we're operating in."

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee, was one of two lawmakers given a review of the report. "This report raises the same concerns that many of us in Congress have been discussing for more than a year," he said in a written statement. But when reached later, his spokesman, Gary Burns, said Mica believes "the CAPPS II program is much better than the registered traveler program."

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Israeli model

The Reason Public Policy Institute's proposed system for airport security resembles Israel's trusted traveler program, which has been in place at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv since 1996. Any Israeli citizen can apply for a membership, which includes a background check, an in-person interview and an annual fee of about $25, according to a report issued by the institute in May. Travelers then have their hand geometry measured and encoded into an identity card.

The Israeli system, developed by EDS, allows passengers to breeze through security checkpoints. In 2001, about 15 percent of the airport's passengers were members of the program, according to the report.

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