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TSA defends new passenger screening system

The TSA  Monday denied reports that it will compel airlines to turn over passenger data records for use in a new computerized system intended to rank travelers for their terrorist potential.
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The Transportation Security Administration Monday rebuffed published reports that it will compel airlines to turn over passenger data records for use in a new computerized system intended to rank travelers for their terrorist potential based on a sweeping check of commercial and government databases.

Airlines have been reluctant to turn over passenger data in the aftermath of the public relations disaster that followed the revelation in September that Jet Blue Airways had voluntarily turned over passenger data to a controversial aviation program sponsored by the military. The airline was sued over the incident, and other airlines viewed the TSA’s new program, dubbed CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), with skepticism.

The Washington Post Monday reported that TSA might be forced to “coerce” the airlines into providing the data. 

“That’s an incorrect conclusion,” said Mark Hatfield, a TSA spokesman, in response to questions about the Post story, “It was written as though that was a foregone conclusion. It is not.”

Hatfield said TSA has “a variety of mechanisms that we can use, including negotiation, to get over a number of issues.”  The response from the airlines “has been very positive,” Hatfield said; however, a final decision on what it will take to move the airlines into full cooperation hasn’t been made, Hatfield acknowledged.

‘Firewall’ for commercial data
The airlines pay about $155 million to administer the current CAPPS program, Hatfield said.  That program screens every passenger who buys a ticket.  “It’s an outdated, marginally effective system,” Hatfield said.  From the system between 14 and 15 percent of all travelers are selected for additional screening at the airport, Hatfield said.  The CAPPS II system should cut that number to 5 percent or less, he said.

The new system, the cost of which isn’t known but will be borne entirely by the federal government instead of the airlines, will take a traveler’s personal information — name, address, date-of-birth and telephone number — and feed it into commercial databases and police records, the latter looking only for instances of violent crimes. That information is processed “behind a firewall and never gets into the hands of the government,” Hatfield said.  “We just use that information to better ensure the accuracy of identification,” he said.  After the commercial database check, each passenger is assigned a color code: red, yellow or green. 

A “red” code flags persons as being of very high risk and automatically bans them from flying.  “Yellow” will get a person an additional check at the airport, and a “green” rating is supposed to provide smooth passage through the airport screening process. 

After the commercial database check, travelers are then run through the government’s various terrorist watch list databases, Hatfield said.  “So it’s actually going to help us focus our screening and attention in a much more narrow field,” he said.

But privacy advocates claim the government system goes too far.  “Experience has shown that trying to catch wrongdoers by investigating everyone is a poor way to stop them,” said Jay Stanley, communications director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union during an online chat session Monday with the Washington Post.  “The marginal improvement in security brought by this vast, unwieldy, intrusive system will not be worth it,” Stanley said.

TSA plans to test CAPPS II in the coming months and then begin “rolling it out in a phased process this summer,” Hatfield said.