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CAPPS II Crash-Lands

Homeland Security cites privacy concerns in canceling airline prescreening project
Concerns over data privacy have bedeviled the Department of Homeland Security's prototype Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, known as CAPPS II. Now they've helped ground it, too.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge last week cited those concerns, as well as system-interoperability issues, for the decision to stop work on CAPPS II. A department spokeswoman couldn't elaborate on the technology problems but did say the project would be redirected to better take into account data-privacy concerns. "Homeland Security is still highly committed to replacing the antiquated passenger prescreening program [known as CAPPS] already in place, which the Transportation Security Administration inherited," she says. There's no timetable for the new project to begin.

In an attempt to thwart terrorists and flag wanted persons, CAPPS II sought to use information that passengers submit when making reservations--name, date of birth, home address, and so on--to confirm their identities and assess how great a risk they might pose on flights. Risk-level data would be deleted for most passengers once they reached their destinations. Data for travelers deemed high risk would be retained for an unspecified amount of time.

CAPPS II was in for a bumpy ride from its inception. Privacy and civil-rights activists criticized the program's access to personal data and the absence of any way for travelers to challenge an unfavorable risk designation. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in February began investigating allegations that the Transportation Security Administration had compelled airlines to provide TSA contractors working on the project with sample data from passenger rolls. And Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the Department of Homeland Security's chief privacy officer, launched an investigation in April into whether TSA violated the Privacy Act by not providing public notice of how passengers could find out if their data was included in test systems, among other things.

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