Controversial Passenger Profiling Scheme Faces Congressional Scrutiny; ACLU Cites Privacy Concerns, Calls for End to CAPPS II Program

March 17, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Following last month’s release of a highly critical report by the General Accounting Office, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation convened hearings today on the controversial airline passenger screening system known as CAPPS II. The American Civil Liberties Union reiterated its concerns that the program poses severe threats to personal privacy and basic civil liberties.

“Imagine a travel system where everyone is a suspect – based upon secret information they can’t review, let alone dispute – that’s CAPPS II,” said LaShawn Y. Warren, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Even after admitting that they are uncertain about the accuracy of the databases the CAPPS II system will use, TSA still plans to rely on this information to assess air passengers’ risk levels, which could mean detention or worse, land some passengers in jail.”

Today’s hearing, convened by Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-FL-7), is the first attempt by Congress to examine the CAPPS II program since the February GAO report showed that the Transportation Security Administration has not adequately addressed seven of eight key areas of civil liberties concerns, including the potential for unauthorized access, general privacy concerns, abuse prevention, the redress process, and inaccuracies in the data used. The report also addressed deficiencies in the practical development and testing of the system.

The GAO also cited several “additional challenges” that match criticisms of CAPPS II that have been consistently made by the ACLU:

  • The need to secure foreign cooperation, which has proven difficult given the strong privacy laws that all other advanced-industrial nations have.
  • The potential for expansion of the program beyond its original mission.
  • The fact that it appears that the program can be circumvented simply by committing identity theft.

CAPPS II would use a two-tier screening process that first cross-references each traveler’s name, address, date of birth and telephone number against commercial databases, and then runs that information through a set of secret databases and computer algorithms in order to assign each traveler a “risk assessment.”

The ACLU has criticized the redress process as insufficient because passengers would be prohibited from reviewing their records to correct inaccuracies. Innocent travelers who find themselves identified as potential security risks (tagged as “yellow” for additional scrutiny or “red” for those barred from flying) no matter how often, will likely find it extremely difficult to fix their erroneous status or find the source of the problem within their government records.

“Congress should act to prevent this ill-advised system from taking flight,” said Warren. “They can start by asking hard questions about this system; its fairness to individuals who get flagged, its impact on the privacy of our citizens – and whether it will even be effective at stopping terrorism.”

More information about the ACLU’s concerns with CAPPS II can be found at:

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