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Data-mining the passenger pool

Beginning this month, federal transportation officials will start testing an instant computer background check at three of the nation's airports. The program will use huge databases of personal information in a "data-mining" operation that will ostensibly analyze every passenger's threat level.

In addition to raising serious privacy concerns, there is little evidence that a computer program comparing travel data to credit card purchases, telephone bills and other records will be able to identify potential terrorists. Profiling technology is less science than guesswork. Just look at how far off the mark the profile was for the Washington-area snipers.

This new airport security system known as CAPPS II _ Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System _ will create a pool of innocent American travelers who will be persistently questioned and detained as suspects. The government refuses to disclose the criteria it will use to determine suspicion, and those travelers flagged by CAPPS II will not be told why. However, one can imagine that the system could identify people as a threat for all sorts of reasons, including their world travels, charitable contributions, the itinerant way they choose to live, or the books they buy. Transportation Security Administration officials claim the system will not profile on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.

Does it make sense to give airport security computer access to a terrorist watch list? Yes, certainly, but the CAPPS II system goes far beyond looking for known terrorists. It will establish three levels of threat: green, yellow and red. Anyone who is on the FBI's no-fly list will qualify as red and probably will be arrested on the spot. Those the computer ranks as green will be able to fly with normal checks. It is those in the yellow category who could present a problem. They will be subject to far more scrutiny every time they fly.

The TSA says it will establish an oversight panel to develop procedures to assist people who claim to have been wrongly classified as a threat. But from the experiences of people who have been subject to heightened scrutiny at airports since Sept. 11, the government probably will botch this too.

To date, travelers who have tried to find out why they have been repeatedly searched have been given the runaround: The TSA recommends they call their local FBI field office, which in turn recommends they contact the TSA. And finding the right place to complain is just half the battle. The traveler then has to somehow correct the way the computer is reading his personal data. If you have ever tried to correct information on your credit report, you know how difficult it can be.

CAPPS II will give the government easy access to a myriad of personal records. It will unnecessarily inconvenience and humiliate many passengers, since an overwhelming number of those who qualify as "yellow" could be false positives. And, in the big picture, it is not likely to make the flying public more secure.

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