ACLU Cautions Against New TSA Airport Spying Proposal; Says Changes Expand Program Beyond Fighting Terrorism

July 31, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to the Transportation Safety Administration’s publication of new proposed guidelines for its now infamous Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, or CAPPS II, airport spying system, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged continued caution around the program, saying that several basic problems with the system remain and that the proposal would expand it beyond fighting terrorism.

“”Although the government has taken steps to address our problems with the system, far more is still needed to protect privacy,”” said Jay Stanley, Communications Director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project. “”Not only does the current proposal still keep the door open to broad snooping into our personal records, it expands the scope of the program beyond terrorism – a clear case of mission creep.””

“”If CAPPS II is allowed to go forward, it will set us on a path to a society where it’s ok for the government to comb through your life, even when you’ve done nothing wrong,”” Stanley added.

The TSA published the new proposed regulations for CAPPS II this morning in the Federal Register. Although many troubling aspects of the system remain, the TSA did cut out any scanning of health or credit records by the TSA itself.

Significantly, the ACLU said, the changes would still permit highly sensitive health or credit records to find their way into the system, as they could be included in the highly classified intelligence databases that would be integrated into CAPPS II, the contents of which would be controlled by outside agencies.

Irrespective of the changes in the Federal Register this morning, the ACLU said that the system would remain a giant integrated database that would be able to quickly run several searches on individual travelers’ personal information. Based on certain indicators in that information, the computer would assign a threat rating to the passenger – red, yellow or green. Reds and yellows would then be subject to heightened scrutiny.

Such a program is rife with flaws, say opponents as ideologically diverse as the ACLU and the Free Congress Foundation. By making every traveler a suspect, the system would greatly increase the chance of innocent Americans being identified as terrorists, potentially harming airport security.

“”Not only does CAPPS II threaten privacy and potentially reduce security, but its designers still haven’t included an appropriate mechanism to ensure it not be used discriminatorily,”” said LaShawn Warren, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”They need to address that immediately.””

Notably, TSA officials are already suggesting CAPPS II for other uses outside the nation’s airports. According the Washington Post, TSA officials like the idea of using CAPPS II to screen truckers, dockhands and other transportation industry workers. The plan vindicates earlier concerns of CAPPS II mission creep, the ACLU said.

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