The recent recommendations of the airline safety commission pose a rigorous challenge
to federal agencies' database skills--and to their ability to work cooperatively.
The commission calls for creation of automated passenger profiling systems using the
databases of the FBI and CIA. It also calls for the Customs Service to get involved in
airport security because of its police powers and its own database on criminals. And it
specifically recommends upgrading Customs computer systems. You can read the
recommendations for yourself on the World Wide Web at http://www.aviationcommission.dot.gov.
The objective is to make data on suspicious would-be passengers available to the FAA
and airport security personnel. The commission said this data would need to be processed
in such a way as to protect both its sources and the civil rights of the individuals under
scrutiny. From a systems standpoint, it's a tall order--and the commission recommends only
$36 million in fiscal 1997 to implement these recommendations.
Even with a lot of money, these recommendations, which President Clinton has vowed are
now policy, are easier to call for than to do.
Let's assume for a moment the many agencies involved--and the airlines that have the
passenger manifests in the first place--can get along. From a technical standpoint,
several technologies are just maturing that offer a whole different approach from simply
building a new database or trying to access various agencies' sensitive information
Job One is to determine exactly what data are required to screen passengers. Job Two is
to establish a kind of metadatabase to point to where that data resides.
From there, this project could take any of several avenues, such as creating a
warehouse of the pertinent data and a Web-based approach to access--in short, an airport
But the more difficult problems will be cultural. The commission, and Clinton and Vice
President Gore, seem to be making big assumptions about agencies' willingness to cooperate
and ability to manage a program this ambitious. Meanwhile, FAA has been cited for laxity
in oversight of airplane mechanic certification, adding to the agency's credibility gap.
The politicians have done their work. Some of the interagency teams involved in an
earlier Gore-led effort, the National Performance Review, proved that the bureaucracy
could respond creatively and effectively. Here's a chance to prove it again.