Airline Bar Codes Could Catch Terrorists

The Transportation Security Administration is set to begin testing an IT-based system designed to catch terrorists before they reach the gate.
A bar code on an airline boarding pass could soon contain a hidden red flag warning government security officers at airport checkpoints that the passenger could be a terrorist on a federal watch list.

In the next few weeks, the Transportation Security Administration, which becomes part of the Department of Homeland Security on March 1, will begin testing at several unidentified midsize airports a $70 million IT-based system aimed at catching terrorists even before they reach the gate. Delta Air Lines will participate in the test.

The system, known as the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening II program, or CAPPS II, would imprint a bar code containing one of three color-coded scores. Transportation Security Administration agents would scan the ticket before letting passengers approach their gates. Red would suggest the passenger could be a terrorist and should be detained. Yellow would require agents to more closely scrutinize passengers before letting them proceed to their gates. Green would imply no security risk, with passengers continuing on with little or no interference by TSA agents.

TSA officials won't discuss specifics about the technology. IBM recently completed a $1 million project that created an airline data interface system that lets different airline passenger information systems communicate with the TSA's computers. Within days, TSA is expected to name a contractor to build a risk-assessment engine to take information from airlines' passenger lists, the government's terrorist watch list, and other databases, such as those that track the movements of international travelers, to generate the security codes.

Privacy experts have expressed fears that the system is intrusive as the government combines private data on passengers with information it already stores. Not so, contend TSA officials, who say the system has no data mining capabilities and won't be designed to create files on individuals. "The system will have no capability to do its own intelligence sweeps," says Chet Lunner, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, which oversaw TSA until last week. "It's fairly analogous to credit-card transaction, using the same logic and algorithms." No permanent records will be maintained.

So anxious are officials about privacy concerns that the government is sending its top brass--including Admiral James Loy, undersecretary for security at Transportation--to speak with civil-liberties and privacy groups in the coming weeks about CAPPS II.