Now under new leadership, the TSA is to begin testing the program at selected airports with $5 million in Congressional funding. Officials say the program could enhance security because the pool of those who need to be assessed would be reduced by the background checks each passenger would undergo. The agency declined to say how the program would work except that it would be voluntary and that registered passengers would not skip security screening altogether.
"It's not as though the person who goes through the checkpoint won't be going through a basic level of screening," said David M. Stone, the TSA's acting administrator.
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)
But privacy experts are skeptical. Registered traveler is "going to create two classes of airline travelers," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that opposes both programs. Registered traveler, he said, "has no security benefits." Terrorists will learn one way or another how to "game" the system, he said.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security started a visa-tracking program that the ACLU and other groups also deemed discriminatory. International airports and ports began digitally fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors from certain countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America when they enter the country on a visa, although most European countries are exempt from the program.
Under one proposal advocated by the major U.S. airlines, passengers who submit an application to the TSA would receive a special card or other identification, if they're approved. At the airport, they would show the card at the security checkpoint or ticket counter and submit to a handprint or fingerprint to verify their identity. Then, the passenger could walk through a checkpoint area dedicated to members of the program.
The airline industry argues that a registered traveler program would not create a class system but would simply reduce wait times for all passengers. "The thing that really frustrates people is not the fact that someone goes through [the security line] more quickly," said Jim May, chief executive officer at the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's lobbying organization. "It's the people who don't prepare themselves and go through security and tie up the whole line. They're the people who really aggravate those people who are trying to catch a plane."
In the push forward on CAPPS 2, U.S. officials said the TSA is to soon begin forcing the airlines to turn over their passenger reservation lists. No airline responded to the agency's initial request for the documents last fall. U.S. carriers have been reluctant to turn over the data because of negative publicity association with the program.
The TSA's first airline partner to test CAPPS 2, Delta Air Lines, backed out of the agreement after privacy advocates put up a Web site encouraging passengers to boycott the airline. The European Union, whose passengers would also be rated and screened, have said the system would violate EU privacy laws, but it has allowed the TSA to use passenger data for testing purposes.
The final blow came in September last year, when JetBlue Airways was sued in several states by passengers after the airline admitted it had turned over passenger data for a military project related to aviation security. The TSA has since been unable to find an airline to help the agency test CAPPS 2 and might now have to resort to coercion to get the reservation data.
Homeland Security officials said some elements of CAPPS 2 and the U.S. VISIT program for fingerprinting and photographing foreigners will overlap because both systems compare passengers against the same terrorist and criminal watch lists. The U.S. VISIT also aims to ensure that visitors do not overstay their visas. U.S. officials said they are considering merging the two programs.
Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the chief privacy officer at Homeland Security, said if the databases are merged, the government would impose strict rules about which agencies can use the passenger information and how it could be used.
"We want these programs to be efficient to the extent it makes them more efficient to have them rolled together, we will be looking at that," Kelly said.
But Kelly acknowledged that there will be several hurdles to clear. The U.S. government has not said how long it will keep data on U.S. VISIT travelers. Information on most passengers screened by CAPPS 2 can be held only for "a matter of days," she said.