Passenger Profiling System Must Be Updated

Posted May 1, 2003 at 2:42pm

It’s been more than a year and a half since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the aviation industry still struggles to keep passengers, avoid bankruptcy and maintain safety and security. While the adoption of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act significantly improved security at our airports nationwide, our mission is not yet complete.

We still have in place the very same, notoriously faulty Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System that existed on Sept. 11, 2001 — a feeble program, developed by the airline industry, based on a dumb database that doesn’t even cross-reference passenger information with criminal records or other intelligence agencies’ databases. Airlines and security screeners end up targeting infirmed, elderly and toddlers with one-way tickets, rather than individuals who might pose a real risk.

The Transportation Security Administration is in the process of updating CAPPS with a new system — CAPPS II — that will confirm a passenger’s identity and use information obtained from various sources to score a passenger’s potential threat. According to TSA, only those individuals found to have connections with terrorists will be prevented from flying. It’s an ambitious undertaking that faces a host of challenges that need to be surmounted before the program can truly be effective.

TSA proposes to run an integrated database — which links law enforcement, intelligence and other credible databases — to check against every booking of every airline passenger. TSA claims, because of privacy concerns, that it will not compile a database of individuals or their previous checks. Background information would have to be reviewed for each and every passenger on every flight they book, no matter how many times a year they travel.

Despite TSA’s assertions to the contrary, civil libertarians and average Americans are concerned about the potential for abuse if the airlines are given access to passengers’ credit records and other personal information. Questions still remain about how an individual’s privacy will be protected under the CAPPS II program — how long will information be retained, and who, beyond the federal government, will have access to an individual’s scores and security records; what safeguards are in place to ensure that the information doesn’t get into the wrong hands; will an appeals process be put in place for passengers who are denied boarding? Maintaining the delicate balance between security and privacy will be a challenging task.

Questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of CAPPS II actually preventing potential terrorists from getting on planes. The associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mark Forman, recently testified that OMB has big concerns about throwing a lot of money at a system that may not measurably improve security. According to Forman, “If we can’t prove it lowers risk, it’s not a good investment for the government.”

The airline industry, hit with the enduring threat of terrorism, war and SARS, doesn’t need to be encumbered further with an overly complicated, unproven, potentially problematic security system.

There’s a viable alternative to the ambitious, potentially problematic CAPPS II proposal — the “trusted traveler” program. Trusted traveler could solve two problems:

• It would lessen the burden on airport screeners. A small number of frequent travelers, about 10 percent, book nearly a third of all flights. Moving frequent fliers to express lanes would allow TSA screeners to transfer their focus to passengers who have not had a background check and pose an unknown threat.

• It would stop the hemorrhaging of business passengers, a lucrative customer base for airlines, and provide a needed boost to the airline industry. A growing number of businesses travelers have begun chartering private jets, driving or taking the train to avoid the hassle that comes with flying commercially.

Participants in the trusted traveler program would pay a modest fee and volunteer for a background check. Those accepted into the trusted traveler program would be issued a counterfeit-proof biometric ID card, and have access to express screening lines. While trusted travelers would enjoy expedited screening, they would not be exempt from baggage screening or airport checkpoint screening. A trusted traveler’s transit through the airport would be greatly expedited, removing the uncertainty of long lines and other time delays, which is an extraordinarily important benefit for business travelers. Ultimately, the trusted traveler program would be automated and employ a fingerprint or iris identification system.

Many European airports have had success with programs similar to the trusted traveler program. For example, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, one of the most secure airports in the world, has an automatic border passage program that allows passengers who have gone through a passport review and background check to speed through border security with the used of a smart card and iris scan.

Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, has a similar program that allows individuals who have submitted biographical information and received an in-depth interview to use a credit card and hand print for initial identification at one of 21 automated inspection kiosks in the airport. If a person’s identity cannot be confirmed, the passenger is sent to an inspector.

Beyond CAPPS II, more needs to be done to improve carry-on and passenger screening systems to better detect explosive or other concealed threatening items. We still must shore-up the air side screening systems — all workers, mechanics, cleaning crews, hospitality items, food carts and employee baggage must be screened before gaining access to any plane. And we have to deal, in a very deliberate manner, with the newly recognized threat of MANPADS (man portable air defense systems such as shoulder-fired missiles).

The confidence of the flying public, the future of the aviation industry, and the stability and future health of the economy depend on improved air security.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is a member of the Homeland Security Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.