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TSA expects to embark on air passenger profiling

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Despite stiff resistance from airlines and privacy advocates, the U.S. government plans to push ahead this year with a vast computerized system to probe the backgrounds of all passengers boarding flights in the United States.

The government will compel airlines and airline-reservations companies to hand over all passenger records for scrutiny by U.S. officials, after failing to win cooperation in the program's testing phase. The order could be issued as soon as next month.

Under the system, all travelers passing through a U.S. airport will be scored with a number and a color that ranks their perceived threat to the aircraft. Another program will be introduced this year that seeks to speed frequent fliers through security lines in exchange for volunteering personal information to the government.

The two initiatives will augment a system introduced last week to fingerprint and photograph millions of foreign visitors upon arrival in the United States.

Privacy and consumer advocates worry that the two initiatives could be discriminatory because they subject airline passengers to different levels of scrutiny. Certain travelers, such as non-U.S. citizens, could face additional questioning under the program known as CAPPS 2, or the second version of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening Program.

Business travelers, who typically pay higher prices for their seats, will likely get an easier pass through security in the "registered traveler" program.

Privacy advocates say they are most concerned about CAPPS 2, which would replace the airlines' existing computer-screening system. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) believes the current system is based on old assumptions about terrorists — flagging passengers, for instance, who paid with cash or bought one-way tickets.

The TSA said the new computerized system will provide a more-thorough approach to screening passengers. It will collect a traveler's full name, home address and telephone number, date of birth and travel itinerary.

The information will be fed into large databases, such as Lexis-Nexis and Acxiom, that tap public records and commercial computer banks, such as shopping mailing lists, to verify that passengers are who they say they are. Once a passenger is identified, the CAPPS 2 system will compare that traveler against wanted criminals and suspected terrorists in other databases.

The two-step process will result in a numerical and color score for each passenger. A "red" rating means a passenger will be prohibited from boarding. "Yellow" indicates a passenger will receive additional scrutiny at the checkpoint, and "green" paves the way for a standard trip through security. Also factored into one's score will be intelligence about certain routes and airports where there might be higher-rated risks to security.

Although it is unclear how many passengers would fit into each category, the TSA said its best estimate is that 5 percent of the traveling public will be flagged yellow or red, compared with an estimated 15 percent of passengers who are flagged under the current CAPPS 1.

The registered-traveler program, also known as "trusted traveler," has been a favorite of the airline industry since the terrorist attacks in 2001.

The TSA's first administrator, Gordon England, declined to pursue the idea, saying he worried that terrorists in sleeper cells could establish themselves as trusted residents over a period of years and later exploit their status to hijack planes.

Now under the leadership of David Stone, the TSA will begin testing the program at selected airports. Officials say the program could enhance security because the pool of those who need to be assessed would be reduced.

The agency declined to say how the program would work except that it would be voluntary and that registered passengers would not skip security screening altogether.

"It's not as though the person who goes through the checkpoint won't be going through a basic level of screening," Stone said.

But privacy experts are skeptical. The registered-traveler program is "going to create two classes of airline travelers," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which opposes both programs. Registered traveler, he said, "has no security benefits. Terrorists will learn one way or another to game the system."

Last week, the Homeland Security Department started a visa-tracking program that the ACLU and other groups deemed discriminatory. International airports and seaports began digitally fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors from countries where a visa is required to enter the United States.

"These kinds of dragnet systems are feel-good but cost-inefficient," said Richard Sobel, a privacy-policy researcher at Harvard Medical School. "The government would do much better using resources to better identify people and deter people who might cause some harm than to use resources devoted to the 99 percent of people who are innocent."