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New System for Airline Screening Is Put on Hold

June 14, 2003|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security has suspended development of an airline passenger-screening program until it can assess any threats to passenger privacy, department officials said Friday.

Prompted by hundreds of complaints, the department is reviewing its Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, known as CAPPS II, to ensure that it complies with privacy laws and plans to release a public report next week, officials said.

"We are intending relatively shortly to put out an additional privacy notice," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the department. "Ostensibly, no testing will happen until that privacy notice is placed, and it should happen shortly."

Homeland Security officials said development had been suspended for about three weeks during the review. The review is not expected to imperil the program or delay its planned implementation, which could occur as soon as January. But it is likely to reveal important details about how the "data mining" system would affect ordinary travelers.

Announced in January, CAPPS II would comb government intelligence, commercial credit reports and other private-sector databases to verify passengers' identities and determine whether they have links to Al Qaeda or other militant groups. Al Qaeda is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States in which four airplanes were hijacked.

The program has drawn fire from business travelers, civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers who fear it would allow the government to pry into citizens' private lives.

It has also met resistance from the European Union, which said it runs afoul of the EU's privacy laws.

The department said it would seek to address some of the concerns in its new privacy-impact statement and that a final statement would be published before the system took effect.

TSA officials have been reluctant to describe the system in detail, arguing that extremists could alter their behavior to avoid detection if they knew how the government was computing each passenger's threat assessment.

The nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to get access to internal CAPPS II documents.

"I think a lot of things are converging that hopefully will, if nothing else, open up the process of what is going on," said the privacy center's general counsel, David Sobel.

Sobel said the current screening system, which matches passenger names against a list of suspected militants, had resulted in scores of people being turned away at airports with no explanation and no way to clear their names.

A Homeland Security official said passengers probably would be able to find out why they were kept off flights as long as they did not see intelligence reports and other classified information, which would be handled by an ombudsman.

The agency also hopes to reveal in its final report what databases are used to compute the risk assessments.

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