The government is revising a plan to check all airline passengers’ backgrounds before they board a plane, further delaying a program once described by the Bush administration as urgent.
Acting Transportation Security Administration chief David Stone said the agency is “reshaping and repackaging” the project. He did not say what prompted the changes but indicated privacy concerns were involved.
“The Department of Homeland Security and TSA feel very strongly that we should not move forward on any program that doesn’t preserve our freedoms,” Stone said Tuesday during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on his nomination to become TSA administrator.
The Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, would check personal information against commercial and government databases. Passengers would be given one of three color-coded ratings based on the likelihood of them being terrorists.
The program has been delayed because some U.S. airlines refused to turn over passenger data for testing, fearing that doing so could violate privacy laws. Critics also are concerned the government could mistakenly identify someone as a terrorist, and have questioned the need to delve into the personal backgrounds of millions of law-abiding citizens.
Since September, there has been a trickle of revelations about airlines and computerized reservation systems sharing personal information about air passengers with the government or government contractors. Privacy advocates criticized the airlines for violating their own privacy policies and said the government could have broken federal privacy laws.
Congressional auditors reported in February that the TSA hadn’t adequately safeguarded passengers’ privacy in developing the program.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was frustrated at the lack of details about the program and how long it would take to develop.
“The public does have a right to know how this program will work,” Wyden said. He likened the delays to “Coming Soon” signs on old theater marquees advertising movies that never arrived.
In January, the TSA said the program could be fully operational by summer, but it hasn’t been tested yet. Stone said a decision on that would be made in the “coming weeks.”
Four critical elements
Stone outlined four elements of the program and said the agency is considering which it can curtail or eliminate. They are:
- Verification of each passenger’s identity by comparing his or her name, address, birth date and telephone number with commercial and government databases.
- Comparison of the traveler’s name against terrorist watch lists.
- Assignment of each passenger to a level of risk, with those deemed too dangerous being prohibited from flying.
- Comparison of the traveler’s name against a database of those wanted for violent crimes.
Air Transport Association spokesman Doug Wills said the airlines support the core concept of CAPPS II as “a program that would use computers that would separate the bad guys from the good guys.”
But he said the TSA needs to be more diligent and thorough in telling air travelers what information is being collected about them and in allowing them to correct bad information in a timely way. The Air Transport Association represents major airlines.
While CAPPS II has been stalled, the TSA has moved ahead with testing of a registered traveler program. Air travelers can volunteer background information and biometric data — fingerprints and eye scans — in exchange for bypassing extra security inspections.