CAPPS II in the Crapper


USA Today reports that the controversial Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), which would have collected personal data on every air traveler in the U.S. and assigned them a "terrorist risk level" ranking, is as dead as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's wet-look hairdo. Whole story here.

In an email commentary about the demise of CAPPS II, Jim Harper of the excellent pro-market, pro-technology privacy group, notes:

CAPPS II has collapsed under the weight of concerns about privacy and the likely ineffectiveness of the program.

The adrenalin rush of 9/11 and some overly simple logic brought the government (and many well-intentioned security advocates) to say, "If we just identify every traveler, we can prevent this happening again." Obviously, it?s more difficult than that. Identifying and understanding people may be part of an effective security program, but it is far from a complete approach, and often not needed at all….

The focus should be on tools and methods of attack. There are only a limited number of devices and substances that can be used to bring destruction. Identifying these things and ensuring that they don?t reach our vulnerabilities are big challenges, but ones that may be surmounted. By contrast, tracking people, understanding their motivations, and discovering what they plan to do are problems of almost infinite proportion.

Harper ends his email on a cautionary note:

We must [now] turn our skepticism to the Transportation Security Administration?s "Trusted Traveler" program, which stands a good chance of morphing into an internal passport like CAPPS II was becoming.

The right answer is to return responsibility for security to the airlines so that they must discover the best security methods that are also consistent with consumers? interests in privacy, convenience, and so on, on pain of losing customers if they fail. The airlines failed once ? on 9/11 ? but the government had (and has) no greater foresight. Government-provided transportation security will never be consumer friendly because it is an exercise in coercion over travelers rather than a service provided by a subordinate (the airline) to protect each traveler?s interests.

For a more positive assesment of Trusted Traveler's promise, check out this report by former Reason mag editor Robert W. Poole, the director of transportation studies at Reason Public Policy Institute, the think tank funded by the same nonprofit that publishes Reason and Reason Online.