Collins quizzes DHS nominees about new systems

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Me.) yesterday told Homeland Security Department nominees that she is concerned about the department's planned air traveler screening system's potential to erode civil liberties.

One nominee assured her that the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II would protect civil rights.

The hearing revealed details about the department's planned U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology system, which will track people crossing borders.

The exchanges came during the nomination hearing for C. Stewart Verdery Jr. as assistant secretary for policy and planning in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, and Michael J. Garcia as assistant secretary of the directorate's Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau.

'CAPPS II will use commercial and classified databases to determine which passengers will receive heightened scrutiny,' Collins said. 'If the databases contain faulty, incomplete or inaccurate information, the possibility is high" that the system will cause errors. She said she is 'very much aware of the pitfalls of this approach' and asked Verdery how the department would protect travelers' rights.

Verdery said CAPPS II would carry out two separate functions: verify the identities of travelers and analyze security. 'A lot of the information [about CAPPS II] is classified,' he said, and offered to explain it to Collins in a secure setting.

'My concern is about the federal government aggregating large databases' of information about individuals, Collins said. 'This is an area where we have to proceed with great caution.'

Verdery replied, 'The commercial data is being accessed for a one-time check'there is no retention of the data.' He assured Collins that the department's privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, would closely monitor the CAPPS II project.

In response to a written questionnaire the committee had sent to Verdery, he wrote that CAPPS II would not access information from the FBI's National Criminal Information Center 'because the majority of information in that database is unrelated to aviation safety or terrorism.'

According to Verdery's questionnaire answers, however, CAPPS II would review information from the State Department's Tipoff database of terrorism suspects, which includes NCIC terrorism data.

Also according to the written responses, Verdery said CAPPS II would not check credit scores or credit histories generated by commercial database vendors, which have prompted many consumer complaints about inaccuracy. The commercial databases used for identity authentication will be separated from CAPPS II's risk assessment function by strict firewalls, Verdery wrote.

CAPPS II may also extend to other venues, including other modes of transportation, after it is rolled out for air passenger screening, Verdery said.

Regarding the U.S. Visit system, Collins asked Verdery what policy issues need to be considered to prevent long delays at borders.

He replied, 'U.S. Visit is a top priority.' The program's top official, executive director Jim Williams, formerly was IRS deputy associate commissioner for program management for business systems modernization. Williams reports to Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security.

The phased rollout plan for U.S. Visit will give the department time to put together hardware and software that will alleviate any backlogs in visitor processing, Verdery said. Department officials are drafting budget plans to present to Congress on how to pay for U.S. Visit, he said.

In his questionnaire answers, Verdery noted that U.S. Visit eventually will absorb the functions of the National Security Entry-Exit System, which checks border crossings by visitors from high-risk countries, and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System for tracking international students.

'I am aware that [SEVIS] has been hindered by several operational flaws,' Verdery wrote. Click for GCN coverage. He pledged to review the problems and analyze how SEVIS can be integrated with the U.S. Visit system.

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