Coalition Letter to the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee Urging Support to the Wyden Amendment to S. 165, the Air Cargo Security Act

March 12, 2003
Coalition Letter to the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee Urging Support to the Wyden Amendment to S. 165, the Air Cargo Security Act

The Honorable John McCain
Chairman
Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation
United States Senate
Washington, DC  20510                                           

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The Honorable Ernest Hollings
Ranking Member
Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation
United States Senate
Washington, DC  20510  

Dear Chairman McCain and Ranking Member Hollings:

We - a diverse, nonpartisan coalition of national organizations - urge you to support the Wyden amendment to S. 165, the Air Cargo Security Act, which will be offered at the Committee mark-up on March 13, 2003.  This amendment requires the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney General, to answer key questions about the Transportation Security Administration's implementation of the second-generation Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (""CAPPS II"").  It is a crucial first step in Congress' oversight of a program that seeks to intrude into the private lives of innocent people.  

According to TSA itself, it plans to mine vast amounts of information about innocent people stored in government and private electronic databases to determine whether passengers are a risk to airline safety.  TSA has said that it will access ""financial and transactional data,"" as well as virtually unlimited data from other proprietary and public sources.  Based on this broad sweep of information, each passenger would then receive a security score and a corresponding color code indicating whether they can proceed through security normally, will be subjected to increased screening, or will be kept off an airplane.   But TSA has provided no information about how these broad categories of information will affect a passenger's score other than to suggest that people who are not ""rooted in the community"" are more likely to be considered security threats.  By that standard, anyone who has moved several times in the past few years - which, for example, would include most graduate students - would be considered a security threat.  

While improving airline security is a laudable goal, it is not at all clear that CAPPS II will ensure the safety of airline passengers.  TSA has yet to explain how the system will work, what data TSA will rely on, what proof TSA has that the program will be effective, or what the error rate is likely to be.  TSA has indicated that many private and public entities might gain access to the personal information being used by TSA, but has offered no limitations on third party use of that information.  TSA has not explained who will conduct the so-called  ""risk assessments"" on which it will rely, or what internal audit controls it will use.  TSA has provided no information about how passengers can challenge their ""score"" - or even find out what it is - if they think it is based on inaccurate information.  And it has provided no procedure for a passenger to challenge the TSA's decision that he or she cannot board an airplane.

We urge you to support the Wyden amendment, which would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to answer these and other questions about CAPPS II - an important step toward understanding whether and how privacy and civil liberties concerns are being considered by TSA.  It is important that Congress exercise its oversight role and start asking questions about CAPPS II now, because the project is moving ahead with a pilot program this month at Delta Air Lines.  And air travelers are worried about CAPPS II; according to The New York Times, in a recent survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, 82 percent of respondents considered the program an invasion of privacy.  At a time when Americans are calling for more privacy, this program would subject anyone who wishes to use air transportation to an intrusive search of their personal information.  

Thank you for your consideration of this matter.  Please let us know if we can be of further assistance or if you would like to meet with us to discuss the amendment. 

Sincerely,

American Civil Liberties Union
Americans for Tax Reform
Center for Democracy and Technology
Eagle Forum
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Free Congress Foundation
People For the American Way

cc:  Senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation



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