A computer system under development by the federal government to flag potential terrorists from among millions of airline passengers has run into “significant challenges” that pose “major risks” to its operation and public acceptance, congressional investigators have warned. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Transportation Security Administration has not resolved important issues, among them the rights of wrongly accused travelers and the system’s technical reliability, the General Accounting Office concluded. The Times obtained a draft of the report, scheduled for release tomorrow.
Criticism from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, strengthens the case of privacy advocates and other opponents of the new system. It was not clear whether Congress would cancel the project, which has strong support in the Bush administration and the airline industry.
Despite the problems, the GAO concluded that such a system “holds the promise of providing increased benefits.” The new system, known as CAPPS II, would replace the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System run by the airlines and based on factors on traveler behavior patterns. Under CAPPS II, passengers would provide their names, birth dates, home addresses, and phone numbers when making reservations. That information would be transmitted to private contractors, who would check commercial databases to verify identity. The government would then check the passenger against national security and law enforcement watch lists of more than 100,000 suspects.
Each traveler would receive a risk rating – green, yellow or red. Most travelers would get a “low risk/green light” rating and undergo routine airport screening. About 4 percent would be rated “unknown risk/yellow light” and receive closer screening, such as shoe checks and physical searches of carry-on items. An average of only one or two people a day would be rated “high risk/red light” and be stopped from boarding or arrested. Officials have said that CAPPS II would greatly reduce the number of people who must undergo intensive searches at airports, now about 15 to 20 percent of travelers. GAO found that the agency has not adequately addressed seven of eight concerns raised by Congress.