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Fly the suspicious skies

Published August 31, 2003

Before it has even been implemented, the future of airport security is obsolete. For about $150 worth of fake IDs and identity research anyone can fool the computerized passenger screening system expected to arrive at airports by the summer of 2004.

The newest generation Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, is billed as a better way to separate potential terrorists from regular air travelers. Its backers claim it will ably authenticate the identity of air travelers and assess their likely risk of terrorist links. But all it takes to defeat the system is a passable fake driver's license and someone else's identity.

CAPPS II will function by having passenger information cross-checked with commercial and government databases. The airlines will submit certain information to the federal government on each air traveler, including: name, birth date, phone number, home address and travel itinerary. Then the Transportation Security Administration will use private commercial database companies to confirm the passenger's identity.

Are you a college student without a permanent phone number? Did you move recently? Could one of those information services companies have their data wrong? These are the kinds of glitches that will mean constant suspicion for some travelers.

CAPPS II will create two classes of Americans: those whom commercial databases can accurately track and those whom, because of errors in the data or because they move around frequently, can't be verified. This latter group will find air travel an inconvenient and humiliating process, one in which they are plucked out of line every time they fly.

Following the authentification check, air travelers will be risk-assessed through a computer ranking. Each person will be designated either a green, yellow or red threat level. Greens would travel freely. Yellows would be subject to additional searches and scrutiny; and reds would probably be detained.

How will a passenger's threat level be determined? It isn't clear. In a notice published in the Federal Register in July seeking public comment on the proposed CAPPS II system, the TSA said it would use "information pertinent to the detection of terrorists and their associates." Such vagueness leaves the door open to anything, from watch lists and national security records to marketing research and financial data. Who knows what kind of information will be deemed relevant?

And fixing a misunderstanding will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Travelers who score yellow will not be told why. Instead, they will be directed to send a written request for the information to the CAPPS II Passenger Advocate. But because the data is not retained, as the TSA's notice states, "in most cases, the response to a record access request will very likely be that no record of the passenger exists in the system."

Just like travelers who share names similar to those on the 88-page "No Fly" list, Americans under CAPPS II will not be given the tools or information to remove the cloud of suspicion accompanying them on every trip to the airport.

David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union and part of a left-right coalition opposing CAPPS II, said he recently met with Adm. James Loy, the TSA administrator, who told him the public shouldn't be concerned with CAPPS II since it was not expected that more than 8 percent of the traveling public would score yellow and fewer than 500 a year would probably turn up red. Keene sees those numbers a little differently: "That comes to 73-million people subjected to increased scrutiny each and every year. That means everyone who flies is affected by this in very serious ways."

But the real travesty of CAPPS II is that it will be utterly ineffective, depending entirely on the passenger being who he says he is. The use of someone else's identity renders the system useless, according to groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

Useless and getting bigger.

With a system like this, mission creep is inevitable. Already, the system that was sold as a way to uncover international terrorists has been expanded to look for domestic terrorists (federal law now defines the crime of domestic terrorism broadly enough to include, for example, animal rights activists) and violent criminals. And federal officials are starting to talk about prescreening bus passengers.

How much longer will it be before we can't enter a government or public building without being risk-assessed? Not very, is my guess.

Welcome to the land of walking suspects.

[Last modified August 31, 2003, 01:47:13]

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