There is no question that a better system for identifying terrorist threats to aviation is needed. The current system operated by the airlines uses an outdated computer model known as Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS. The system checks travelers' names against a "no fly" list of terror suspects. But the list is only partially complete, because the government doesn't want to give the airlines sensitive national security information.
Problems with the list have been legion. Innocent people with names similar to suspects on the list are routinely snagged, including famously, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and less famously, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa.
In addition, the computer designates "selectee" travelers who should be more thoroughly scrutinized. They are passengers who bought their airline tickets with cash or are traveling one way. The criterion is well known, and no terrorist with half a brain would be caught by it today.
But the recommended replacements for CAPPS coming out of the Transportation Security Administration retain some of the worst failings of the current system and raise new privacy concerns.
After significant public and congressional pressure, the TSA agreed earlier this year to dump CAPPS II, a data-mining security program that would use government and commercial databases of personal information to generate a risk score for each air traveler. It was a program that would have seriously invaded privacy without demonstrably enhancing security.
Yet many aspects of CAPPS II have re-emerged in TSA's newest program, called Secure Flight. Once again the TSA says it will subject passengers to computer screenings that include accessing secret commercial databases. The TSA says the difference is that it will be using the databases to try and verify the passenger's true identity, not issuing a risk score. But the same problems remain. Commercial databases are known to have serious inaccuracies, yet passengers would have no right to access and correct personal information. Innocent travelers would again be caught in the system's snare, and significant policing resources would again be wasted scrutinizing and interrogating computer-generated suspects who don't pose a real risk.
Despite these deficiencies, the TSA has announced its intention to test Secure Flight, and the agency has ordered all airlines to turn over passenger records on every domestic traveler in June. These records include more than just names and addresses, they also detail who has traveled together and those passengers who ordered special Kosher or Halal meals _ far more information than is needed for identity.
Passengers traveling by air are already subject to screening for weapons, which provides a basic level of security. But before the TSA is allowed to expand passenger screening to include the use of secret databases, an independent evaluation of the program's effectiveness and privacy implications is needed. Congress should be just as skeptical of Secure Flight as it was of CAPPS II.
One of the many problems with the "no fly" list is that innocent people are routinely snagged, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.