False alarm

Thomas R. Temin

I'm still trying to figure out why the Homeland Security Department walked away from the Computer Aided Passenger Prescreening System II. My best guess is the Bush administration didn't want to risk a political fire at this particular time.

No matter what sort of initiative is proposed in which databases are compared, the shout of 'Privacy violation!' is a sure showstopper, justified or not.

The privacy concerns surrounding CAPPS II seem to be bogus. How is it a violation of privacy to check someone's name against a watch list, especially if the data is purged once the flight is safely over? It's not as if the airline and the government don't already have people's name, address, phone number and date of birth. And it's not as if CAPPS II is designed to track and record people's travel patterns. Airlines do this anyhow, with travelers' happy blessings. It's called a frequent flyer program.

One somewhat overwrought Web site devoted to CAPPS II (and the airlines that supplied bulk data for CAPPS II tests) claimed that 'America' won in the battle against the program. It described with satisfaction how secretary Tom Ridge pantomimed a stake being driven through CAPPS II's heart.

But did America win, or did the terrorists? If some of the privacy extremists had their way, there would be even less screening and computer matching capability than before 9/11.

The CAPPS II tumult recalls the brief hysteria some years ago when the Social Security Administration first put Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimates Statements online. Getting to one's PEBES on the Internet required more pieces of verification data than getting it in person'but no matter. The ensuing uproar probably set back e-government two years, while doing little to advance privacy.

Similarly, CAPPS II's demise'although department officials were quick to backpedal and say the program is really being rejiggered'won't do much for privacy because it would have had little effect on anyone's personal privacy. But its absence does leave a gap in the nation's ability to prevent future 9/11s.


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