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Published: Monday, 1/26/2004

Now boarding Big Brother Airlines

SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

THE disclosures that two airlines, Northwest and JetBlue, secretly provided passenger information to federal security officials raise disturbing privacy issues about a planned new passenger-screening system.

Computerized passenger screening goes on now, but the Transportation Security Administration is planning to install a much more extensive system called CAPPS II this summer.

Still unanswered in any detail is how much personal data the TSA is going to demand, what it plans to do with that information, and who all gets to see it.

Privacy groups are already up in arms about the plan.

Also vague is precisely what kinds of information will cause a passenger to be singled out.

Prior arrests?

Extensive travel abroad?

Arab origin?

Suspicious books checked out of the library?

Bad credit reports?

There are obvious dangers to CAPPS II.

There will be considerable pressure for the TSA to share the information with other agencies and perhaps, in return for access to their databases, with commercial firms.

Intercepting passengers with outstanding felony warrants seems a reasonable use of CAPPS II. But there likely will be pressure to expand the net, perhaps to include deadbeat dads, tax defaulters, traffic scofflaws. Once the computerized ability is there, the temptation to use it may be overwhelming.

There also does not seem to be a mechanism for a would-be passenger who is repeatedly and mistakenly intercepted by airport security to get off the TSA's watch list.

The fact that the two airlines, part of an industry that is pledged to keep passenger data confidential, secretly disclosed that information makes you wonder about the integrity of the whole process.

And implicit in all this is whether the government has a right to know who all of the 612 million passengers are who fly each year and where each one of them is going and why Congress needs to give CAPPS II a thorough scrutiny.

Are we really getting more security or just more hassle and bureaucracy - and, of course, less privacy?



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