TSA launches Secure Flight

The Transportation Security Administration has overhauled the controversial Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) II and will take over responsibility for checking airline passengers' names against terrorist watch lists.

The new government program, announced Aug. 26, is called Secure Flight. Testing will begin within the next 60 days for the latest phase of the two-year, over-$100 million program within the next 60 days. The overhaul follows a CAPPS II review ordered by Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge in July.

Unlike the previous proposal, the new system will only look for known or suspected terrorists, not other law enforcement violators. In addition, it will include a redress mechanism, where people can resolve questions if they believe they have been unfairly or incorrectly selected for additional screening.

The current system screens an average of 16 percent, or one out of every six air passengers. TSA officials say the enhanced program will cut that number down to 5 percent or 6 percent. Lockheed Martin Corp. will continue to work with the TSA on this project, despite revisions.

Privacy advocacy groups are cautiously optimistic about the new Secure Flight, although they have some concerns about the integrity of the watch lists.

"The watch list is now the centerpiece of the program, and, frankly, I think that's appropriate," said Lara Flint, staff counsel for the Center For Democracy and Technology.

She does have lingering questions about the standards for getting on and off the list and periodic audits for accuracy. "If the watch lists are no good, the program is not going to make us more secure or protect our civil liberties," Flint said.

Officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, a fierce opponent of CAPPS II, said that although Secure Flight represents an improvement, much of it still remains a mystery.

"We certainly applaud the effort to streamline the mission and cut back the scale of the program...but the redress system seems to be different in name only," said LaShawn Warren, legislative counsel for the ACLU. She added that security and use of the information are still concerns. "No one has put forth any reason why identity theft would not circumvent the system," she said. "There's a lot of money going into this program that may not make us safer."

This is not the first overhaul of the controversial risk-assessment program. CAPPS II represents a revision of an earlier version of the program.

Some high-profile incidents recently illustrated how the current system can finger the innocent. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was recently stopped before boarding a flight because an individual on terrorism watch lists had used his name as an alias.

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