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Air travel database plan set to advance

Despite stiff resistance from airlines and privacy advocates, the U.S. government plans to push ahead this year with a vast computerized system to probe the backgrounds of all passengers boarding flights in the United States.
Passengers check in at an Air France ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport in December.
Passengers check in at an Air France ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport in December.Nick Ut / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Despite stiff resistance from airlines and privacy advocates, the U.S. government plans to push ahead this year with a vast computerized system to probe the backgrounds of all passengers boarding flights in the United States.

The government will compel airlines and airline reservations companies to hand over all passenger records for scrutiny by U.S. officials, after failing to win cooperation in the program's testing phase. The order could be issued as soon as next month. Under the system, all travelers passing through a U.S. airport will be scored with a number and a color that ranks their perceived threat to the aircraft.

Another program will be introduced this year that seeks to speed frequent fliers through security lines in exchange for volunteering personal information to the government.

The two new initiatives will augment a system introduced last week to fingerprint and photograph millions of foreign visitors on arrival in the United States.

Privacy and consumer advocates worry that both programs could be discriminatory because they subject airline passengers to different levels of scrutiny. Certain travelers, such as non-U.S. citizens, could face additional questioning under the program known as CAPPS 2, or the second version of the Computer Assisted Passenger PreScreening Program, some organizations say. Business travelers who typically pay high prices for their seats will likely get an easier pass through security in the "registered traveler" program.

Privacy advocates say they are most concerned about CAPPS 2, which would replace the airlines' existing computer screening system. The TSA believes the current system is based on old assumptions about terrorists, flagging passengers, for instance, who paid with cash or bought one-way tickets. Passengers targeted for additional screening commonly find an "SSS" or "***" designation on their boarding pass.

The TSA said the new computerized system will provide a more thorough approach to screening passengers. It will collect travelers' full name, home address and telephone number, date of birth and travel itinerary. The information will be fed into large databases, such as Lexis-Nexis and Acxiom, that tap public records and commercial computer banks, such as shopping mailing lists, to verify that passengers are who they say they are. Once a passenger is identified, the CAPPS 2 system will compare that traveler against wanted criminals and suspected terrorists contained in other databases.

'Red' rating
The two-step process will result in a numerical and color score for each passenger. A "red" rating means a passenger will be prohibited from boarding. "Yellow" indicates that a passenger will receive additional scrutiny at the checkpoint and a "green" rating paves the way for a standard trip through security. Also factored into one's score will be intelligence about certain routes and airports where there might be higher-rated risks to security.

Although it is unclear how many passengers would fit into each category, the TSA said its best estimation is that 5 percent of the traveling public will be flagged yellow or red, compared with an estimated 15 percent of passengers who are flagged under the current version of CAPPS 1.

The registered traveler program, also known as "trusted traveler," has been a favorite of the airline industry since the terrorist attacks in 2001. The first leader of the Transportation Security Administration declined to pursue the idea, saying he worried that terrorists in "sleeper cells" could establish themselves as trusted residents over a period of years and later exploit their status to hijack planes.

Now under new leadership, the TSA is to begin testing the program at selected airports with $5 million in Congressional funding. Officials say the program could enhance security because the pool of those who need to be assessed would be reduced by the background checks each passenger would undergo. The agency declined to say how the program would work except that it would be voluntary and that registered passengers would not skip security screening altogether.

"It's not as though the person who goes through the checkpoint won't be going through a basic level of screening," said David M. Stone, the TSA's acting administrator.

But privacy experts are skeptical. Registered traveler is "going to create two classes of airline travelers," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that opposes both programs. Registered traveler, he said, "has no security benefits. Terrorists will learn one way or another to game system."

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security started a visa-tracking program that the ACLU and other groups also deemed discriminatory. International airports and ports began digitally fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors from certain countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America when they enter the country on a visa, although most European countries are exempt from the program.

"These kinds of dragnet systems are feel-good but cost-inefficient," said Richard Sobel, a privacy policy researcher at Harvard Medical School. "The government would do much better using resources to better identify people and deter people who might cause some harm than to use resources devoted to the 99 percent of people who are innocent."

Under one proposal advocated by the major U.S. airlines, passengers who submit an application to the TSA would receive a special card or other identification, if they're approved. At the airport, they would show the card at the security checkpoint or ticket counter and submit to a handprint or fingerprint to verify their identity. Then, the passenger could walk through a checkpoint area dedicated to members of the program.

The airline industry argues that a registered traveler program would not create a class system but would simply reduce wait times for all passengers. "The thing that really frustrates people is not the fact that someone goes through [the security line] more quickly," said Jim May, chief executive officer at the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's lobbying organization. "It's the people who don't prepare themselves and go through security and tie up the whole line. They're the people who really aggravate those people who are trying to catch a plane."

In the push forward on CAPPS 2, U.S. officials said the TSA will soon begin forcing the airlines to turn over their passenger reservation lists. No airline responded to the agency's initial request for the documents last fall. U.S. carriers have been reluctant to turn over the data because of negative publicity association with the program.

Threat of boycott
The TSA's first airline partner to test CAPPS 2, Delta Air Lines, backed out of the agreement after privacy advocates put up a Web site encouraging passengers to boycott the airline. The European Union, whose passengers would also be rated and screened, have said the system would violate EU privacy laws, but it has allowed the TSA to use passenger data for testing purposes.

The final blow came in September last year, when JetBlue Airways was sued in several states by passengers after the airline admitted it had turned over passenger data for a military project related to aviation security. The TSA has since been unable to find an airline to help the agency test CAPPS 2 and might now have to resort to coercion to get the reservation data.

Homeland Security officials said some elements of CAPPS 2 and the U.S. VISIT program for fingerprinting and photographing foreigners will overlap because both systems compare passengers against the same terrorist and criminal watch lists. The U.S. VISIT also aims to ensure that visitors do not overstay their visas. U.S. officials said they are considering merging the two programs.

Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the chief privacy officer at Homeland Security, said if the databases are merged, the government would impose strict rules about which agencies can use the passenger information and how it could be used.

"We want these programs to be efficient to the extent it makes them more efficient to have them rolled together, we will be looking at that," Kelly said.

But Kelly acknowledged that there will be several hurdles to clear. The U.S. government has not said how long it will keep data on U.S. VISIT travelers. Information on most passengers screened by CAPPS 2 can be held only for "a matter of days," she said.