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 are to be scored with a number and a color that ranks their perceived threat to the aircraft.
Video: Washington Post reporter Sara Goo talks about the plans for a national travel database for airline travelers.
Transcript: Jay Stanley, communications director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the ACLU, will be online to discuss the government's plan to institute a travel database to rate security records of all passengers boarding flights in the U.S.
TSA May Try to Force Airlines to Share Data (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2003)
Plan to Screen Air Travelers Hits Bump (The Washington Post, Sep 24, 2003)
JetBlue Apologizes for Use of Passenger Records (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2003)
Fliers to Be Rated for Risk Level (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2003)
Surveillance Proposal Expanded (The Washington Post, Jul 31, 2003)
Another program that is to be introduced this year that seeks to speed frequent fliers through security lines in exchange for volunteering personal information to the government.
The two new initiatives will augment a system introduced last week to fingerprint and photograph millions of foreign visitors on arrival in the United States.
Privacy and consumer advocates worry that both programs 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 PreScreening Program, some organizations say. Business travelers who typically pay high 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 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. Passengers targeted for additional screening commonly find an "SSS" or "***" designation on their boarding pass.
The TSA said the new computerized system is to provide a more thorough approach to screening passengers. It will collect travelers' 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 contained in other databases.
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 that a passenger will receive additional scrutiny at the checkpoint and a "green" rating 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 estimation 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 version of 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 first leader of the Transportation Security Administration 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 planes.