Privacy in the Skies

CAPPS II: the sequel.


A yearlong chorus of anguish from privacy activists killed the proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, better known as CAPPS II. That program would have allowed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to search a plethora of government and private databases to assess the threat posed by each traveler.

In August the TSA announced a replacement program called Secure Flight, which will begin preliminary testing this fall. Some differences between Secure Flight and CAPPS II are meant to assuage privacy concerns. It will check passengers only against terrorist watch lists, not against all lists of criminals. It will not require airlines to demand an address, date of birth, or phone number for every passenger reservation. It will, however, still consult commercial databases to verify passenger identities.

While many privacy activists are at least tentatively pleased with this program, there are worries that Secure Flight could be made more intrusive after it's implemented. The Washington Post reports that "people close to the project" believe that the program's parameters "will likely expand after the presidential election."

Travel writer Edward Hasbrouck worries that the debate over CAPPS II and Secure Flight might all be moot. He fears the proposed Registered Traveler plan–which will require even more private information, including biometric identifiers, from travelers who wish to go through an expedited security process–may evolve into registration of all flyers. The combination of that and Secure Flight, he thinks, will be worse than the original CAPPS II.

Writing on his blog, Practical Nomad, Hasbrouck notes that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a September press conference that "we think the registered traveler program is a good place to start, but that… could be the first step of enlarging it to not only other frequent travelers…but potentially down the road, the citizens that even travel casually." Hasbrouck wrote, "Perhaps we should rename the 'Registered Traveler' program the 'Airline Passenger License' program?"