Private Info Becoming Plane Truth

By Elliot Borin,1283,55037,00.html

2:00 a. m. Sep. 16, 2002 PDT Initial rollout of what may eventually become the world's largest silicon repository of personal data could be less than 90 days away. As expected, civil liberties groups aren't happy about it.

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II) is designed to scan multiple public and private databases for information on individuals traveling into and out of the United States. The system will feed the results to an analysis application that mathematically ranks travelers' potential as security threats.

A brainchild of the Transportation Department's Transportation Security Administration (TSA), CAPPS II is a quantum expansion of the current system used to identify potential terrorists attempting to board airplanes. In addition to accessing FBI, National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and State Department databases, CAPPS II is expected to spider IRS, Social Security Administration, state motor vehicle and corrections department, credit bureau and bank records.

Scheduled to go into limited service by the year's end, its deployment could be delayed if Congress decides to uproot the TSA and replant it in the Homeland Security Department.

Though the TSA has stated that people whose records are pockmarked with unpaid parking tickets, unfiled tax returns and overdue child- support payments have nothing to fear from CAPPS II when trying to fly from point A to point B, civil liberties advocates aren't so sure.

"A basic issue in privacy is 'function creep,'" said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Once a surveillance system is put in place for a particular function, for example, aviation security ... it can be used for many other functions as well. We've seen this with Social Security numbers on the government side and, of course, with customer databases on the private side.

"The trick is to tie this kind of surveillance to some kind of benefit or transaction that large numbers of people must periodically sign up for or renew, like car registration or renewing a driver's license. You don't have to chase people down; they come to you."

Tien notes that CAPPS II also raises backend issues such as an individual's right to view and correct errors in files and securing the database against hacking by outsiders and misuse by insiders.

Independent Institute President David Theroux believes that security would be enhanced and the threat to civil liberties diminished if all airport operations -- including terrorist screening -- were privatized.

"Many European airports have been privatized," he said, "resulting in improved service, including security and accountability. Firms (operating airports) should be made totally subject to competitive pressures to perform and should be held fully accountable for any breaches in the civil-liberty rights of passengers. If such systems fail to protect passengers and employees, they would be held accountable."

But the government isn't known for its careful handling of citizens' private information, Theroux said.

"Federal agencies have been repeatedly shown to engage in grotesque abuses of surveillance powers for political purposes," he said. "The experience with the FBI's COINTELPRO to neutralize political dissidents is just one of many examples of what we must guard against.

"The power of TSA to systematically process and maintain a central repository of financial, educational, political, family and other personal info ... is especially dangerous."





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