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Airline Passengers: Background Check

Jay Stanley
Communications Director, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Monday, January 12, 2004; 1:00 PM

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 to hand over all passenger records for scrutiny by U.S. officials and passengers will be scored with a number and a color that ranks their perceived security threat.

Jay Stanley, communications director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the ACLU, was online Monday, Jan. 12 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss the controversial measure.

Video: Washington Post reporter Sara Goo talks about the plans for a national travel database for airline travelers.
_____Live Discussion_____
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.
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TSA May Try to Force Airlines to Share Data (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2003)
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Fliers to Be Rated for Risk Level (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2003)
Surveillance Proposal Expanded (The Washington Post, Jul 31, 2003)
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The ACLU has urged the Transportation Security Administration to completely abandon its plan to build the security system.

A request for an online discussion with an official of the Transportation Security Administration has been submitted.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Jay Stanley, welcome to washingtonpost.com. Why does the ACLU oppose the government database plan for airline passengers?

Jay Stanley: Thank you for having me on. We oppose the so-called CAPPS II program for several reasons. It will be a tremendous invasion of our privacy. It will put the government in the unprecedented position of rating every American who flies on whether they are "trusted" or not. And it will not make us safer.


Alexandria, Va.: While I agree with your position, what alternative does the government have besides asking for travel records on passengers, even if they don't retain them? The public won't tolerate another 9/11.

Jay Stanley: A fair question. Experience has shown that trying to catch wrongdoers by investigating everyone is a poor way to stop them. The US should focus on improving its intelligence on the ground, and improving physical security. Most of the additional security that we've gained since 9/11 is probably due to improved security at the gate, to locking cockpit doors, to air marshals, and to the fact that in the next hijacking, no one on the plane is going to sit back and wait to land in Cuba. The marginal improvement in security brought by this vast, unwieldy, intrusive system will not be worth it.


Castle Shannon, Pa.: I don't have a problem with giving an airline any personal information on me if it will get me through a quicker line. Why should I be bothered with this if I have nothing to hide?

Jay Stanley: You should be bothered because a democratic system of government is not possible without privacy. Are you SURE you have nothing to hide? If you were falsely accused of a crime and some aggressive prosecutor dedicated himself to finding dirt on you, would he succeed? What if you found yourself doing battle with a company that wanted to put a waste dump in your neighborhood? Or becoming a political activist because you dislike the policies of some future government? When people's lives are turned into an open book by their own government, it is dangerous for our way of life.


Cardiff. Md.: How can the public be confident that their personal data does not end up in the hands of the wrong people?

Jay Stanley: Right now, unfortunately, it is difficult to have such confidence. What is needed is a strong overarching privacy law. The US is just about the only advanced-industrial nation that does not have that kind of a law. One of the side effects of the CAPPS II airline profiling proposal is that database companies will gain easy access to your lifetime travel dossier - and be able to sell that to whoever they want (and of course the government will have access to it as well).


Sparks, Nev.: What exactly is Acxiom's role in this collection of information on U.S. citizens? Is Acxiom creating the database by collecting the information or is it running the airline security operation or both?

Jay Stanley: Acxiom is a data aggregator -- one of a growing number of companies who make money by compiling and selling dossiers of information about Americans. They say they cover 98% of us. They would have 2 roles in CAPPS. First, the TSA would check your name, address, DOB, and phone # against one of these private databases to see if they match. If they don't they would be suspicious that you are not who you say you are (even though these databases are very unreliable, might not reflect the fact that you've recently moved, etc.) Second, the TSA would then take your identity and run it through unknown set of databases to decide if you are "red" "yellow" or "green" risk. These databases could include law enforcement and intelligence, but could also include private databases like Acxiom. Individuals who are branded as "risky" would never know what information (or possible errors) that rating was based on, and would have no chance to correct it.


Indiana: Apparently, El Al (and the government of Israel?) has been doing something similar for years. How does this differ, and what can we learn, both good and bad, from the El Al experience?

Jay Stanley: From my understanding, El Al's security is based heavily on human intuition -- extensive face-to-face interviews that can last up to an hour with each traveler, conducted by expert security personnel. First, CAPPS II would be computer-based judgements, with all the unreliability that implies. Second, that kind of system, according to the experts I've heard, simply could not be scaled from tiny El Al to the giant US airline system.


Laurel, Md.: Your position includes the point that the planned database would "violate our privacy." Federal agencies like the IRS and Census Bureau gather information about us regularly and use it only for highly specific purposes. The information would violate our privacy, except that they are very good at protecting it.

Would the air travel database be used for anything except air travel security; and if it's only used for that, what part of our privacy is being given up?

Jay Stanley: That is a good point. The IRS and the Census Bureau are restricted by highly specific laws from sharing their information in most circumstances. The Privacy Act statement filed by TSA for CAPPS does state that TSA won't keep certain information gathered about passengers. But it is still relying on unknown secret databases to make the "risk assessment," so what matters most to passengers is the content of those unknown databases, and TSA has not, and has no plans to, reveal what those databases are.

In addition, a side effect of CAPPS II will be to standardize the data that is kept by the airlines and their reservations services (Sabre, etc). So even though the TSA won't be holding a lot of that data, it will be kept by the (for-profit) data companies, and the government will be able to access it easily.


Clifton, Va.: The US govt already keeps track of your comings and goings when you clear customs.
Everytime you use you passport to enter or leave the the country there is record.
What is the big deal?

Jay Stanley: Here we're talking about internal travel, and we're talking about the creation of a system for creating lifetime travel dossiers on each of us.


Shaker Heights, Ohio: In this age of technology it is a fact of life that more information on any individual is available to any entity, including the federal government? Given that, wouldn't the federal government be remiss if they don't use this information to protect the public?

Jay Stanley: There need to be restrictions on the government's power to keep dossiers on individuals who are not suspected of involvement with a crime. The Congress passed such restrictions (although they have too many loopholes to be of use here) for very good reasons, based on the abuses that were discovered taking place in the 1970s and before, where the CIA and FBI came dangerously close to turning into a politically motivated secret police force.

In addition, this is just not an effective way to protect airline passengers. Real terrorists will be lost among the billions of innocent travelers, and a computer will not reliably be able to pick them out. That's even if they don't commit ID theft. To get around CAPPS II, all you have to do is commit ID theft. That doesn't take a criminal mastermind, unfortunately it's all too easy.


College Park, Md.: Just regarding the time factor, wouldn't this hold up things even more for passengers getting to their destinations? I mean, now you have to give yourself two hours before your flight. What would this add?

Jay Stanley: Actually you've just hit the tip of the iceberg of the practical problems this system would create; they are enormous and many experts are saying the government really hasn't thought them through properly. For example, it turns out that just adding Date Of Birth to all the computers -- from airlines to reservation services to travel agents and Web sites -- will be an enormously complex and expensive undertaking. Who will pay the up to $1 billion cost? Passengers? Airlines? Government?


College Park, Md.: I am reminded of a line from Margaret Atwood's novel, A Handmaid's Tale, in which, coincidentally, the religious right takes over the country: "In a slowly heating bathtub, you'd be burned alive before you know it."
Do you see these security measures as the "heat" that could lead to a 1984-type country/world?

Jay Stanley: It is our responsibility as Americans to think carefully about this program and its likely effect over time. It is a radical new role for the government. We think that over time it is likely to expand, in terms of a) how much data they collect on you to decide if you're a risk or not b) the number of places this is deployed, from airports to bus stations, sea ports, office buildings, and who knows where else, until we have a system of internal government check points, and (c) in terms of the number of offenses they will be looking for. Already they've gone from foreign terrorists, to foreign and domestic terrorists, to wanted criminals, and the program hasn't even been launched yet.


Washington, D.C.: Airline security is still a joke, and trying to make it computerized and quantified is holding a fig leaf over a huge security hole.

HUMINT is the best intelligence there is, and the airlines ought to have security guards asking the baggage questions (and scrutinizing the responses), not a ticketing agent who is issuing boarding passes.

This new system means nothing if people can still go to a kiosk and check in without ever talking to a human. Then again, the agents no longer ask about your bags so I guess I'm just screaming into a hurricane.

Jay Stanley: Yes, the most effective security measures are physical security, like cockpit doors, and dedicating the intelligence resources to investigating known leads -- not turning every American into a suspect.


Falls Church, Va.: Some of the people on this chat just don't get it. I think you need to mention what specifics bother you. Do you want your income level to determine your threat level? Your credit rating? Your debts? Your education? Your hobbies? Your politics? Interests? We don't know what info they will be using!

Jay Stanley: Yes, that's the other half of the proposal, which I haven't really talked about - the so-called "trusted traveler" proposal. It would let some people "voluntarily" give all kinds of personal information in order to get a special "get out of security free" card. This would be a magnet for terrorists, who would try to get one. And how would they decide who gets one? Political opinions? And perhaps most important, it opens up a huge security hole, since every real terrorist will try to get one. That is why the first head of TSA opposed this proposal.


Sparks, Nev.: Wesley Clark was a lobbyist for Acxiom as recently as last September (according to the Center for Public Integrity). He lobbied the CIA and the White House, including a private meeting with Dick Cheney, on behalf of Acxiom. Would there have been a reason he needed to lobby, such as a contract for this airline security program that was open for competition? If not, how are Acxiom and others compensated for using their database?

Jay Stanley: The databases like Acxiom, Choicepoint, etc. are eager to take these enormous sets of dossiers they've compiled, and have sold for mostly marketing purposes, and create new profit centers in the post-9/11 world. The FBI and several other federal law enforcement agencies are known to be customers of these database companies. What does it matter if the government isn't creating dossiers on innocent citizens if a private company is doing so, and the government can just dial in and access them whenever it wants? We need good privacy legislation in this country so that the ever-increasing tracking and data collection on Americans that is taking place -- by government AND the private sector, it makes less and less difference -- is brought under control.


Ivy, Va.: Do you think more travelers might be concerned about this if, say, we had to have an internal U.S. passport that we used to check into and out of every state or city or hamlet we visited? Or if the same program was used on bus and train travel?

Jay Stanley: I think there is a good chance that once planted, CAPPS II will extend its roots deeper and deeper into American life, and become what you describe. Americans need to think through the likely consequences of this kind of program before we accept it.


Jay Stanley: It looks like I am out of time, thank you all very much for you interest in this important topic. I wish I could hang out for hours answering every one of the excellent questions I've gotten.

Please visit www.aclu.org/privacy if you'd like more information about this program and other privacy and technology issues.


Jay Stanley


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