Passenger Threat-Ranking System Rated "Red" For Stop By Congressional Investigators

February 12, 2004 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Passenger Threat-Ranking System Rated “Red” For Stop By Congressional Investigators


WASHINGTON – A highly critical report by Congress’ investigative wing released today vindicates the long-standing concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups from across the political spectrum that the controversial airline passenger screening system known as CAPPS II poses severe threats to personal privacy and basic civil liberties in America.

“This report validates the concerns we’ve been raising about this program for the past two years,” said LaShawn Y. Warren, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “As the GAO report shows, TSA failed to establish a concrete plan for protecting the privacy and civil liberties of innocent people and it doesn’t have an adequate system for providing people wrongly implicated as potential terrorists with some recourse to clear their names.”

Congress mandated the long-awaited report before certain funds could be spent on CAPPS II or Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System. CAPPS II is designed to update the current automated security screening process in the nation’s airports.

The report, in addition to addressing deficiencies in the practical development and testing of the system, shows that the Transportation Security Administration has not adequately addressed seven of eight key areas of civil liberties concern, including the potential for unauthorized access, general privacy concerns, abuse prevention, the redress process and inaccuracies in the data used.

“Not only has the GAO found that CAPPS II falls short on 7 out of 8 criteria set by Congress, but in a remarkable twist it has pointed out three additional areas of concern with the program,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. The “additional challenges” listed by the GAO included:

  • 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.

“The GAO, a well-respected, nonpartisan body with no agenda of its own, has echoed the very criticisms that the ACLU has been making,” Steinhardt said.

Practically, CAPPS II is designed to 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.”

For more than two years now, the ACLU and other concerned groups — which include the Eagle Forum, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform – have complained about these shortcomings in the system, and in some cases have argued that the mission of CAPPS II precludes these issues from ever being fixed.

In particular, the redress process would, inherently, have to be an inefficient one given the secrecy of the data used to check passengers. Even if travelers were wholly innocent, the groups have said, once the system identifies them as potential terrorists – by tagging them as “yellow” for additional scrutiny or “red” for those barred from flying – it would likely be next to impossible to completely erase that from their government records, even with vigorous non-retention policies.

“Based on the GAO report, CAPPS II deserves a ‘red’ rating of its own,” Warren added. “This program shouldn’t be allowed to fly.”

A copy of the GAO report and further background information can be found at:

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The Latest in National Security

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About National Security

National Security issue image

The ACLU’s National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.