Despite lingering questions, the Transportation Security
Administration plans to start testing a new passenger
identification system within the next couple of months. If all
goes well, the system could be in place nationwide by the end of
the year or early next year.
But significant hurdles remain. Privacy advocates say the
system is too invasive and could potentially threaten civil
liberties. Some members of Congress have hinted they may try to
hold up funding for the effort.
The highly controversial Computer Assisted Passenger
Prescreening System, commonly referred to as CAPPS II, is designed
to flag suspected terrorists or other dangerous passengers before
they board a plane. CAPPS II, announced in January, is intended to
replace an existing program that airlines created in 1996.
After receiving more than 200 comments about its initial CAPPS
II proposal, TSA released an interim final rule on the program
Thursday. The revised proposal makes significant modifications to
the original, including limiting the amount of time the agency
will keep files on passengers. Originally, TSA planned to keep
such information for 50 years. Under the interim rule, the data
will only be held for a few days after a flight.
Additionally, TSA appears to have backed off a proposal to tap
into a broad array of databases—including commercial sources, such
as banks and credit reporting services—for information about
travelers. The new rule says the agency will limit its data
collection to the passenger's name, address, telephone number and
date of birth. TSA says it will not ask commercial data providers
for anything other than an “authentication score and code
indicating a confidence level in that passenger's identity.”
Still, under the rule, TSA will not divulge exactly where the
information it gathers on passengers comes from. That raises red
flags for privacy advocates such as David Sobel, general counsel
at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
“We think this system should be as transparent as possible,” he
said. “Public oversight and accountability is very important. This
program can't be shrouded.”
Sobel also raised concerns that the rule allows TSA to extend
its reach into general police work. Under the rule, TSA will
notify law enforcement authorities of any passenger with an
“outstanding state or federal arrest warrant for a crime of
TSA officials did not respond to calls for comment.
Reflecting the growing tension in the agency between its
security mission and maintaining customer service for travelers,
TSA Administrator James Loy said in a statement that CAPPS II will
not only help identify potentially dangerous passengers, but also
“be a valuable tool in holding down passenger wait times by
reducing the number of people who undergo secondary screening or
who are misidentified as potential terrorists.”
Lockheed Martin won the $12.8 million contract to build CAPPS
II earlier this year.