As Congress Puts Controversial CAPPS II Program on Hold, ACLU Urges TSA to Abandon Super Snoop Profiling System

September 30, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Following Congressional action to put the notorious Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, otherwise known as CAPPS II, on hold, the American Civil Liberties Union today strongly urged the Transportation Safety Administration to completely abandon its plan to build the controversial system.

“CAPPS II contains fundamental flaws that cannot be fixed,” said LaShawn Warren, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “This system, which has not been shown to be an effective tool in blocking terrorists, would cast a cloud of suspicion over every traveler by subjecting their personal information to government scrutiny.”

In official comments filed with the TSA today, the ACLU also said that the agency has failed to include a safeguard mechanism to ensure that the system is not used to unfairly target racial, religious and ethnic minorities — as any law enforcement profiling program like CAPPS is apt to do.

The CAPPS II program is a vast integrated database that would run several searches on individual travelers’ personal information using unknown criteria and unknown sources of information. Examples of records to be searched could include financial, educational and medical. Based on certain indicators in that information, the computer would assign a threat rating to the passenger – high, unknown or low. People rated as high or unknown threats would then be subject to heightened scrutiny or barred altogether from flying.

Just last week, lawmakers included language in an appropriations bill forbidding CAPPS II program from going beyond testing unless the TSA can demonstrate that it will not “produce a large number of false positives,” that there is an “internal oversight board to monitor” the program, that there are “sufficient operational safeguards to reduce the opportunities for abuse,” and that “there are no specific privacy concerns with the technological architecture of the system.” The spending bill now awaits the President’s signature.

Also last week, the ACLU also responded to reports that the private airline company JetBlue had shared five million passenger records with a subcontractor for the Pentagon. The company was then was able to match 40 percent of those records with further personal details – such as income, occupation, and Social Security number – obtained from a data merchant. The ACLU launched a web feature to allow JetBlue passengers issue a Privacy Act request to obtain any records that the government obtained through JetBlue. As of today, more than several hundred requests have been filed.

“Congress took an important first step in putting CAPPS II on hold especially in light of the JetBlue fiasco,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Liberty and Technology program. “JetBlue demonstrates that once you establish a huge data-mining program, the results can’t be predicted.”

In addition to the ACLU, individuals and organizations from across the political spectrum are expected to file comments against the program, including Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA).

The ACLU’s comments are available online at:

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