© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003
Connie Abodeely describes herself as a white, Christian, 60-year-old Republican "who has never even had a speeding ticket." A New Jersey resident who lives part time in Vero Beach, she often finds herself in airports. And every time she does, she gets searched. They pull her aside, open her luggage and rifle around.
After it had happened five consecutive times since Sept. 11, Abodeely turned to her husband and said, "I think I'm being profiled."
Abodeely decided to find out. She contacted the Transportation Security Administration in Washington. Yes, she was told, she is on a federal law enforcement list. No, they couldn't say why.
Armed with the will of the wronged, Abodeely, a second-generation Lebanese-American, has been trying for six months to get off this list.
She has called the TSA close to a dozen times, contacted her local FBI office, Continental Airlines and her congressman. None of these contacts yielded any information on how she got on a suspicious persons list or how to get off. All they have given her is a royal runaround.
The reason Abodeely's story should concern the traveling public is that the TSA is about to markedly expand the number of people who land in this netherworld of suspicion. A new data-mining system is being rolled out this month at three major but unidentified airports. Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II, or CAPPSII, will label every airline passenger either a green, yellow or red security risk. Anyone who comes up red will be on the terrorist watch list and arrested on the spot. Of far more concern are passengers tagged yellow. They will be subject to heightened security every time they fly.
CAPPSII will work by instantly reviewing giant databases of personal information to evaluate someone's potential as a terrorist. The system will consider all sorts of records, including "financial and transactional data," which could mean credit card purchases, housing records, telephone and Internet communications, car rentals and any other information held in a government or corporate database.
Privacy issues aside, there is simply no evidence that this kind of data mining effectively identifies true threats. What is certain, however is an extraordinary potential for making inaccurate assumptions about innocent activities. Abodeely is a case in point. She has no idea why she is being singled out, but assures me with a big, friendly voice that she is a heavyset grandmother who has led an exemplary life. Abodeely wonders if the stops have something to do with her heritage or her extensive traveling. "We've taken two trips to Egypt," Abodeely says, "and about five years ago we went to Syria, where my grandparents are from and I met a cousin." Or, Abodeely postulates, maybe she's given to the "wrong" causes: "I'm a great one to give to charity. You send me something and I send money. I get stuff in the mail like Palestinian refugees this and that . . . maybe I gave $25 to one of these charities that has been targeted?"
Whatever the reason, her quest these days is to clear her name. To that end, she has been making phone calls and sending certified letters since October 2002. Back then, the TSA told Abodeely that in fact she was on a law enforcement list and directed her to call her local FBI. The FBI then told her that she had to figure out what agency put her on the list otherwise she'll never get off, and directed her back to the TSA. Repeated additional calls to the TSA -- in which she had to deal with a different person each time -- offered no answers. Two TSA public service agents told her that they would contact airport security and someone from that department would get back to her, but that never happened.
Finally, in November, she was put in touch with Greg Warren, a supervisor at the TSA. According to Abodeely, Warren told her that airport security would not be calling her and it was a mistake for TSA workers to make that promise. He added that those workers were also wrong to disclose to her that she was on the law enforcement list to begin with.
Warren also said he would look into the matter further, but as of the end of February, Abodeely's last conversation with him, Warren had no new information, and Abodeely's status as an official suspicious traveler had not changed. Warren failed to return my phone calls.
Even the office of Abodeely's congressman, Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., hasn't been able to pry any information from the FBI or other agencies about her situation.
When CAPPSII is finally implemented nationwide, which is expected by June 2004, multiply Connie Abodeely by thousands. The amount of information fed into the system, its unreliability and the likelihood of it being misinterpreted will put many more people into this bureaucratic hall of mirrors. The TSA claims it is setting up a process to resolve such complaints, but knowing what Abodeely has gone through, it is hard to be comforted by this.
The TSA's plan for expansive profiling and privacy intrusion will not secure us from terrorists; instead it will create a blacklist of travelers whose innocent activities have caused some computer to cry "yellow." Abodeely may be one of the first to deal with this nightmare, but she will be far from the last.