Right-Left Groups Tell Homeland Security Committee to Curb CAPPS II

March 25, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today joined several groups from across the political spectrum in urging Congress to halt further deployment of the controversial airline surveillance system known as the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System or CAPPS II.

“”Instant and invasive background checks on innocent air travelers bolster neither security nor freedom,”” said Katie Corrigan, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”CAPPS II would be easily fooled by fake IDs and would mistakenly brand law-abiding Americans as terrorists. Congress needs to reapply common sense in air security.””

In a letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and other key congressional oversight committees, the groups said that CAPPS II would pose serious threats to both air safety and personal privacy. Right- and left-leaning groups, including the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Free Congress Foundation signed the letters. It comes on the heels of a series of meetings held between the Transportation Security Administration, the developer of CAPPS II, and privacy advocates, including the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Eagle Forum.

Although the TSA deserves credit for its outreach to non-governmental stakeholders in the system, the ACLU said, CAPPS II – as described during the meetings – would still present significant privacy threats.

According to the TSA, CAPPS II would involve two distinct phases. First, it would use private sector databases to gauge the likelihood that passengers are in fact who they say they are. Once this check is done, a deeper background search would be conducted using top-secret law enforcement and intelligence databases. This more invasive process would then result in passengers being assigned a color-coded threat level: green for minimal danger, yellow to trigger heightened security measures and red to signify an acute threat.

The ACLU and other groups that signed the letter said both stages of the process are problematic. The initial check into private sector databases could, the ACLU said, be easily circumvented with a fake driver’s license or passport, impairing the program’s potential effectiveness in stopping real terrorists.

The second process is worse, the ACLU said. At the recent meetings, the TSA announced its plan to move the most intrusive element of the program – the physical and cyber infrastructure for conducting background checks and maintaining dossiers on air travelers – from the Department of Transportation to some shadowy law enforcement/intelligence database. Such a system would, the ACLU said, undercut public accountability and guarantee that those travelers falsely labeled red or yellow will have a far harder time clearing their names.

“”TSA wants to put the meat and potatoes surveillance capability of CAPPS II in the black box of law enforcement and intelligence data – a world often beyond the check and balance of meaningful public scrutiny,”” Corrigan said.

The letter can be found at:

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