The Seven Problems With CAPPS II

April 6, 2004

Why the Airline Passenger Profiling Proposal Should Be Abandoned 

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The Transportation Security Agency has proposed a program entitled Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II, or CAPPS II, a frightening system designed to perform background checks on the 100 million Americans who fly each year to determine their ""risk"" to airline safety.  There are 7 reasons why this program should be abandoned:

1. The Black Box: Americans Judged In Secret

CAPPS II judges Americans in secret.  It generates a ""risk score"" based on information sources that are never disclosed to the public, and analyzes that information using criteria that are also never disclosed or subject to public oversight.  The TSA has specifically exempted itself from having to publish the ""sources of records"" upon which the system will draw. That means that even if they don't use credit scores today, they could reverse that decision at any time without telling the public. 

2. Effectiveness: This System Will Not Make Us Any Safer 

  • Even a known, wanted terrorist could sail right through this system simply by obtaining another person's name, address, telephone number and date of birth (data that can be purchased online for about $50) and putting that information on a false driver's license or passport (also easy).  
  • Even a tiny error rate would create huge problems. Given the 100 million Americans who fly and the estimated one-billion passenger transactions that take place each year, with even an unrealistic accuracy rate of 99.9%, mistakes will be made on approximately one million transactions and 100,000 separate individuals. The TSA has admitted to a likely error rate of at least 4%, or 4 million people. Those mistakes will result in not only a lot of innocent people coming under suspicion - or worse - but will make it extremely hard to find the handful of real terrorists amid the ocean of false positives.

3. Mission Creep: Build It And It Will Grow

Once this system is sold to the American people, it will inevitably be expanded - and in more ways than one: 

  • The data it draws upon.  Inevitably, over time the government will seek to assemble more and more information about us for its background checks in an ever-more-desperate attempt to make the system work - and there would be no public notification or oversight over those sources. 
  • The purposes for which it is used.  The program has already been expanded to include domestic terrorists and violent criminals, even before the program is even officially launched.  Meanwhile the definition of ""domestic terrorist"" is being steadily expanded far beyond the everyday meaning.  How long before the system is expanded to search for con-artists, drug dealers, deadbeat dads, and so on down the scale of wrongdoing?        
  • The places where it is deployed.  Former TSA director Admiral James Loy explicitly indicated that the agency envisions expansion of CAPPS II beyond airports to other transportation hubs such as ports.  Next will come train stations, bus stations, secure office buildings, concert arenas - where will it end?

4. Due Process: No Notification, No Correction, No Appeal

Individuals singled out by the program will have no way of knowing why they have been targeted, because the core security evaluations at the heart of CAPPS II are completely secret.  They will not know if they are the victim of the inaccuracies that riddle government and private databases, have been falsely accused of wrongdoing by someone, or have been discriminated against because of their religion, race, ethnic origin, or political beliefs.  

The current proposal does include a procedure for passengers to ""contest or seek amendment of"" those records.  That procedure is largely meaningless, however. It would only apply to the information passed along to the TSA by the airlines.  The information that will be of true concern to travelers - the data used to assign Americans their ""risk scores"" - will not be available for review or correction.  And the appeal would be to the TSA itself; there would be no independent or judicial redress.  

5. Surveillance: Enabling the Compilation of Lifetime Travel Dossiers

CAPPS II would make possible the creation of lifetime travel dossiers on individuals.  The airline industry's current computer systems have never been built around the routine or standardized collection of name, address, telephone number, and date of birth for each passenger.  The result is that currently it is very difficult to know if the John Doe who took one flight is the same Johnny Doe who took another, and the same J.S. Doe Jr. who took a third. 

By imposing a requirement for the standard collection of name, address, telephone number, and birth date, CAPPS II will facilitate the easy compilation of lifetime travel dossiers covering everyone who flies anywhere in the world by the airlines and the independent contractors who handle their reservations.  No U.S. privacy laws restrict the ability of these companies to compile, store, and share the dossiers on individuals' travel that they possess.  And the DHS and other government agencies would have easy access to these dossiers under the Patriot Act and other laws giving the government access to corporate records.  

6. Unnecessary Burden: Airlines, Travel Agents And The Public Will Pay For CAPPS II

To gather the required data, CAPPS II would require rebuilding the interlocking computer systems that make up the world's airline reservations system - the independent contractors that handle reservations for most airlines, and the other computer systems to which they connect - from Web sites to travel agencies to the airlines themselves.  The cost would be enormous, yet the TSA has never explained who will bear this expense or even sought to detail it.  The International Air Transport Association has reported cost estimates of more than $2 billion.  In addition, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives testified that a ""conservative estimate"" of the cost to business in delays and denied boardings under CAPPS II would be $2 billion.

7. Discriminatory Impact: the Potential for Systematic Unequal Treatment

While CAPPS II remains shrouded in mystery, there is a very real possibility that it will treat Americans unequally based on characteristics such as race, religion, and ethnic origin.  The points where the system is open to discriminatory impact include:

  • The commercial databases.  The commercial data companies upon which CAPPS II will rely to check identity may possess accurate information on a fewer proportion of minorities than they do for non-minorities.  This could be true because, for example, African-Americans and Hispanics tend to move more often than non-Hispanic whites.         
  • The black box.  The secret risk-scoring portion of the CAPPS II process could include any number of data sources that have a discriminatory impact on the process.  For example, credit scores, which have a well-documented bias against minorities, could be incorporated into the secret risk assessment process. 

The bottom line is that we just don't have enough information about this program to allay well-founded suspicions that its burden would not be shared by all Americans equally.

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