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
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
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,"
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."