updated 2/11/2004 7:41:45 PM ET 2004-02-12T00:41:45

The government has not adequately addressed security and privacy concerns in its plan to use personal information to rank airline passengers as potential security threats, congressional investigators say.

The Bush administration has said it wants to begin testing a new program this spring and put it in place during the summer. The findings by the General Accounting Office, contained in a draft report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, could delay the rollout of the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II.

“This is a very serious problem,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation. “We should have had in place a system by now that could profile passengers without discrimination and without intruding on their privacy.”

Congress has said the government may not spend any money for testing or putting the program in place until the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, reports that eight specific concerns have been satisfied. Those include assurances that the system is accurate, that the technology ensures privacy, that there are safeguards to prevent abuse and that passengers who think they were mistakenly identified as a threat have some recourse.

The investigators did not recommend whether the program should go forward, but they said the Transportation Security Administration “has not completely addressed” seven of the eight issues. The exception was the creation of an oversight board to monitor the system.

No delay seen, security agency says
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the transportation agency, said the report would not slow the project because its timetable included putting the privacy protections in place.

“We agree with Congress on the need for this — that the current system is inadequate,” said the spokesman, Dennis Murphy. “The report really reflects more of an ‘incomplete’ than a final grade. We agree it’s incomplete.”

He said the program was part of security improvements enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which included federal passenger and baggage screeners, bulletproof cockpit doors, armed pilots and more air marshals.

The passenger screening program would check information such as names, addresses and dates of birth against commercial and government databases. Each passenger would be given one of three color-coded ratings.

Suspected terrorists and violent criminals would be designated as red and forbidden to fly. Passengers who raised questions would be classified as yellow and would receive extra security screening. The vast majority would be rated as green and would be allowed to go through routine screening.

Fear of privacy invasions
Privacy advocates say the program could infringe on civil liberties and may label innocent people as security threats.

“Congress clearly needs to put the brakes on the system and continue its oversight before the system moves forward,” said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The report said privacy concerns remained unresolved in part because the system’s development was delayed. One reason is airlines do not want to turn over information about passengers until the carriers are sure that privacy and security concerns are addressed.

In a letter Wednesday to President Bush, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and 25 other House members expressed concerns about privacy.

“Even with the necessary exchange of liberty for security, consumers have the right to know how their private, personal information will be used,” according to the letter.

The lawmakers want the government to make it clear what information could be shared by airlines and how it would be used. The Homeland Security Department said it intended to do that.

The final GAO report was to be released Friday.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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