DHS scraps computer pre-screening system, starts over

By Chris Strohm

The Homeland Security Department is scrapping plans for a controversial airline passenger screening system, but plans to implement an alternative program that checks passenger information against terrorist watch lists, officials said Thursday.

Homeland Security officials have decided to abandon the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System II as it currently exists, said DHS spokeswoman Suzanne Luber. Instead, the department will design a new program with a different name in response to the privacy concerns and operational problems that beset CAPPS II.

"The CAPPS II proposal in its current format is not moving forward; it is being redesigned," Luber said. "DHS is still obviously committed to ensuring passenger safety while not unnecessarily holding up passengers for additional secondary screening."

Luber said the department still plans to pursue a program that screens passenger information against government watch lists. But she said it is too early to say whether the new system will check personal information against commercial databases maintained by private corporations, or whether passengers would be assigned a color-coded risk score, as was the case under CAPPS II.

Additionally, it is not clear now if the government will require airlines to turn over passenger information. Under CAPPS II, DHS was going to require airlines to hand over passenger records, which would include names, addresses, phone numbers and birthdates. The airlines had refused to give the government passenger information for testing CAPPS II.

Privacy advocates and civil liberty groups on Thursday applauded the announcement that CAPPS II is being redesigned. The program was heavily criticized, primarily because of unresolved privacy and technical issues.

"The current system is bad both for security and civil liberties. CAPPS II is not the right answer," said Lara Flint, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "Part of what needs to happen is that, in development of a new concept, privacy needs to be taken into account from day one. This isn't going to work unless the American people trust it."

The American Civil Liberties Union encouraged DHS to follow through with ending CAPPS II.

"All too often, the Bush administration's approach to preventing terrorism has been based on a dragnet approach that turns every American into a suspect," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project.

David Stone, acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, which manages CAPPS II, was asked about the fate of on the program Tuesday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He said the program "is not going forward as previously briefed."

Stone said the computer-assisted presecreening effort has four pillars: Developing an identification verification process using names in commercial databases; running names against terrorist watch lists; assigning a risk assessment to each passenger, and creating a database of people wanted for violent crimes and outstanding warrants.

He said the reshaped CAPPS II effort will involve looking at each pillar to determine which should be curtailed or eliminated, while still providing security and reducing the number of passengers that have to go through secondary screening at airports. He said the department has not made any final decisions but is working with "a sense of urgency."

"Right now, with 16 percent of folks being looked at for secondary screening, that's too high a number," Stone said.

"So a thoughtful program which gets at improved ID, also enhancement of security, and then reduction of the number of people looked at, I think is the end state that we'll see in the product that's delivered."

A TSA spokeswoman said the new system would incorporate views of the privacy and civil-liberties offices of the department and would have a better method for clearing passengers whose names wrongly appear on the high-risk list.

The Government Accountability Office released a report in February concluding that TSA had failed to meet seven of eight congressional requirements for CAPPS II, including plans to prevent identify theft and privacy abuses. The report prompted an outcry from a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, who said the program should be "suspended indefinitely."

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, cited the need to speed the passenger screening process and reduce costs during a hearing last month.

"If CAPPS II cannot be implemented," McCain said, "TSA must come up with some sort of system to facilitate a preliminary screening regime so that all the stress of screening is not focused on the passenger checkpoints."

William New, senior reporter for National Journal's Technology Daily, contributed to this report.