Congress demands study of CAPPS II

Congress wants the General Accounting Office to make sure that a system to screen airline passengers using databases to check their backgrounds does not violate privacy rights before it goes into effect.

Lawmakers approved the first budget this week for the Homeland Security Department that included restrictions on the deployment of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) II, the controversial program intended to spot potential terrorists trying to board commercial flights.

The passenger-profiling system is being held up for at least five months while GAO officials complete a report about its potential effectiveness.

"CAPPS II has raised many questions about individuals' privacy rights," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). "This is an important endeavor for homeland security. But there are many troubling questions raised by such a system, not least of which is what information will the government use to determine threat level."

Congress wants to make sure there are safeguards in place to protect passengers from abuses and to make sure there are security measures to prevent hackers from gaining access to information.

Lawmakers also want to make sure that the screening system does not make too many errors in targeting passengers based on incorrect data. The program is intended as a high-tech replacement for the current system that simply checks passengers' names against a list of suspected terrorists. Hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were able to buy airline tickets and board the commercial flights even though a number of them appeared on wanted lists.

The new system will require passengers to provide airlines with additional information, which the agency will check against commercial databases and a watch list of suspected terrorists and people wanted for violent crimes. The system will then use color codes for each passenger to rank potential threat levels.

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