Many Questions Remain About Passenger Profiling System, ACLU Says

September 22, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU Responds To First Official Written Descriptions Of TSA’s “Secure Flight” Program

NEW YORK–Despite the publication of three new documents describing a new airline screening program the government calls “Secure Flight,” many questions remain about the program and it is far from clear that it solves the problems that bedeviled its controversial predecessor CAPPS II, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

“Secretary Ridge said that a stake was being driven through the heart of CAPPS II,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, referring to the previous passenger screening proposal, which the government abandoned. “But it appears that the vampire may be climbing out of its coffin once again.”

Steinhardt said that the published notices provided too little detail for the public to determine whether Secure Flight represents a genuine improvement over the predecessor CAPPS II program – and that he feared that many of the problems with the original proposal remain. For example, it appeared that security decisions will be made based on frequently inaccurate information contained in secret “black boxes ” maintained at the Terrorism Screening Center that are completely inaccessible to the public and effectively shielded from scrutiny or correction. According to news reports, the Terrorism Screening Center will maintain watch lists that will be used under Secure Flight for identifying passengers to be screened as “selectees” or placed on a “no-fly” list, leaving innocent travelers who are caught up in the system with no fair way to have their names removed.

Further, Steinhardt said, the TSA has not really demonstrated that the new system will actually be effective in stopping terrorists.

“CAPPS II would have rendered secret, unreviewable judgments of individuals based on some secret TSA process. It’s not much better if secret, unreviewable judgments will now be based on a secret terrorist screening process,” he said. “The government has sought to downplay the significance of what it intends to do in the airline passenger screening area, in part by focusing its program descriptions on a ‘testing phase,'” Steinhardt added. “But it appears far too likely that our nation will end up saddled with an ultimate end product resembling CAPPS II.”

TSA officials announced the advent of Secure Flight in August, but until the release of documents on Tuesday, no details of the new program were available in writing. Among the new details released is the government’s plan to require the airlines to turn over the passenger name records (PNR) details of all their customers who flew during the month of June 2004. That data would be used for “preliminary tests.”

“Passenger name records often contain a great deal of information about individuals and their travel,” Steinhardt explained. “The government says it will only use name, telephone, address, and domestic flight segments. So why are they ordering airlines to turn over ‘any other information’ they have in each record? Why does the government need to find out who has ordered a Kosher or Halal meal, or potentially even who has slept with whom in a hotel room – all information that is sometimes contained within PNR records.”

“Congress needs to step in and require the Government Accountability Office to perform the same objective evaluation of this program — looking at both its effectiveness and its impact on privacy — that it did for the CAPPS II program.”

For more information about no-fly lists, including a link to theGAO report on CAPPS II, go to

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