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By Cynthia L. Webb washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; 9:35 AM
The Bush administration has sent the embattled CAPPS II airline passenger screening program back to the hangar for a major overhaul, a decision that civil liberties advocates have applauded as a win for privacy rights.
USA Today broke the story on Wednesday. The paper cited Homeland Security Department chief Tom Ridge, who, when asked "whether the program could be considered dead, Ridge jokingly gestured as if he were driving a stake through its heart and said 'Yes.'" But like great vampire (and airplane disaster) movie sequels, CAPPS II may rise again after a lot of retooling. The exact changes that the government plans to make are unclear, and media coverage today conveyed the confusion over the government's next move.
The New York Times reported that the government "is pressing ahead with a new computer system that will rely on government databases." The Washington Post, however, cited unnamed sources familiar with the program as saying "the government will simply confirm a passenger's identity by, for example, asking to see a valid driver's license and then checking its authenticity with a commercial data service. Then an airline agent would match that name against increasingly robust watch lists of known terrorists." The Post also said that the overhaul would happen after the presidential election this November.
The Times explained that the program is not being canceled outright, as was first reported. "The acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, David M. Stone, told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday that his agency was 'reshaping and repackaging' the screening system, which was originally supposed to use commercial databases that sweep in data on credit, home ownership, telephone records and car registration as a way to evaluate whether the name given by a passenger was real," the paper reported. Despite Ridge's remarks as quoted by USA Today, DHS spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told the Times Thursday that "the administration continues to move forward on an automated aviation passenger prescreening system to replace the existing antiquated airline system, to better manage risk and be more efficient."
USA Today: Plan To Collect Flier Data Canceled The Washington Post: New Airline Screening System Postponed (Registration required)
The New York Times: Government Is 'Reshaping' Airport Screening System (Registration required)
The government backpedaled some, justifying Ridge's remarks and the plan to reshape CAPPS II. "Homeland Security spokeswoman Suzanne Luber, however, says both were right. 'The name CAPPS II may be dead, but the process of creating an automated passenger pre-screening system to replace the current CAPPS will continue,' Luber said. 'What form that takes, that's what we will continue to focus on. Due to operational factors (such) as public comments on CAPPS II proposal, we are now redesigning the program itself,'" Wired News reported today. More, from the Los Angeles Times: "We are working on developing the next-generation passenger pre-screening system, but the program you knew as CAPPS II is essentially halted," said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield.
Wired News: Life After Death For CAPPS II Los Angeles Times: U.S. Rethinks Air Travel Screening (Registration required)
USA Today today reported that under the new plan, "Airline passengers' names would be checked against an expanded terrorist watch list under the latest plan being developed by the Homeland Security Department to identify terrorists before they board airplanes... Privacy concerns, technical difficulties and political pressure all factored into the demise of CAPPS II, which was in development since early 2002 and had already cost the government $102 million. Its termination left government leaders looking for a new program that would fill a gap in airline security."
USA Today: Revised Flier-Screening Plan In Works
The Washington Post noted that the "decision comes after months of meetings with airline officials and lawmakers who pressed the administration to drop more controversial elements of the program, known as Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program, or CAPPS II. Big disagreements about the system remain within the Department of Homeland Security itself, with some officials viewing it as a major aviation security improvement and others fearing it could alienate voters who view CAPPS II as a surveillance system that pries too far into passengers' lives, sources close to the project said. Officials have already used some elements of the program, and it was scheduled to roll out in airports this fall. Department officials yesterday could not pinpoint a new start date or provide details on what aspects of the screening system would be dropped. But, at least initially, the government would step back from plans to subject all passengers to CAPPS II screens, which marshal multiple government and private databases to assign each flier a risk level using a green, yellow or red color code, officials said. The extra screening may only kick in if a passenger's actions, such as paying cash for a ticket, flag him as suspect under the current system. Officials said they also are likely to abandon plans to use the system to find passengers wanted for violent crimes."
More from the Los Angeles Times: "Yolanda Clark, another transportation security spokeswoman, said the new system would check passengers' names against an expanded terrorist watch list while trying to minimize intruding on privacy. No details were available about how it would work."
Public Display of Relief
Privacy groups lauded the decision, though some expressed concern that the program would resurface. "We hope that this decision is not just a tactical retreat, but part of a broader recognition that such an approach to security is ineffective and contrary to our traditions of freedom," Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project, said in a statement yesterday. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office, told the New York Times that a system that just uses government databases could still be unfair. "But she said she was glad that the government was no longer proposing to run every name through commercial databases," the paper said. "We don't want to turn into a society where everybody is treated like a suspect and everybody is investigated," Murphy said.
Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Lee Tien said in a statement: "Finally, the Department of Homeland Security has recognized what EFF has been saying all along: the proposed CAPPS II system would be an ineffective, expensive, and unnecessary invasion of travelers' privacy."