Norton raises CAPPS II liability fears

New concerns about the potential financial liability of the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) emerged in a heated House subcommittee hearing today.

The controversial airport system has been plagued by problems with privacy, effectiveness, costs and delays since its initial incarnation. But in today's hearing of the House Aviation Subcommittee, Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the Washington, D.C., delegate to the House, argued that passengers could miss pivotal business transactions or other events with financial consequences if detained or delayed in the screening process.

Norton presented a hypothetical situation in which passengers with the same name could trigger the system, resulting in missed flights and thus missed business deals. For instance, there could be another Eleanor H. Norton from Washington, D.C., she said.

"May I suggest that this program is going nowhere until you get an opinion on liability," Norton said.

She assailed what she characterized as an assumption that CAPPS II would not have any liability concerns. CAPPS II officials must be prepared "to deal with what happens to people who... in any imperfect system, will be misidentified and will have major losses as a result," Norton said.

CAPPS II will be time-efficient, said TSA Acting Administrator David Stone, who suggested that the system may actually reduce the amount of time passengers spend getting screened. But he said that he did not have a solution to her liability concerns.

The subcommittee's top Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), called himself a profound skeptic of CAPPS II, and warned that the program could go the way of Star Wars antimissile technology or the Comanche helicopter program, which was abandoned after costing taxpayers $8 billion.

General Accounting Office officials in February recommended that the Homeland Security Department develop schedules, cost estimates, oversight policies and a way for wrongfully targeted passengers to seek recourse. TSA officials have taken steps to address a host of potential privacy violations, but GAO officials found that, in developing CAPPS II, the agency has yet to finalize plans to comply with the Privacy Act.

The first generation of the passenger screening program, CAPPS, was developed in the mid 1990s and operated by the airlines, rather than the federal government. At a cost of $150 million a year, it was deemed too expensive, error-prone and time-consuming.

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