ACLU Criticizes Plans to Go Forward With CAPPS II, Calls Dragnet Profiling Approach Fake Security on the Cheap

January 12, 2004 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


WASHINGTON – Responding to news reports this morning that, despite broad opposition from across the political spectrum, the Homeland Security Department intends to go forward with two highly controversial airline screening programs, the American Civil Liberties Union today strongly criticized the move. It called the two programs – called CAPPS II and Trusted Traveler — wrong-headed both for national security and for civil liberties.

“CAPPS II is illusory security on the cheap,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “Instead of zeroing in on suspects based on real evidence of wrongdoing, it sweeps every airline passenger through a dragnet. From business class on down to coach, you’re going to be checked against secret government intelligence databases. What happens in cases of mistaken identity or simple computer error?”

CAPPS II, short for Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program, will reportedly use a complicated two-step process to rank every airline passenger’s threat level, both domestic and international, as either a green, for standard scrutiny, yellow, for heightened scrutiny, and red, which will presumably result in the detention of the passenger. It also lacks any effective recourse for Americans’ who it falsely flags as terrorist suspects.

First, it will check passengers’ names, addresses, telephone numbers, birthdates and itineraries against commercial databases. This step has prompted concern in many quarters that some minorities and the poor, who tend to leave less clear cut “fingerprints” in the data, will be disproportionately flagged as potential security risks by the system.

Once the passenger’s identity has been established, CAPPS II will then cross-reference the person’s name against unknown law enforcement, intelligence or other government databases, called the “black box” by many experts in reference to the fact that not even the Transportation Security Administration – let alone passengers who could be affected by it – will know what exactly goes into these databases. In addition, CAPPS II presents serious practical problems, such as the fact that it would require the computer reservation systems used by airlines around the world to be rebuilt, at a cost that has been estimated to be as high as $1 billion.

The “trusted traveler” program has problems of its own. It would not likely remain truly voluntary for long as passengers are for all intents and purposes forced to get one in order to avoid humiliating and inconvenient “second class” treatment at the gate. It would not remain confined to air travel, as other venues begin to piggy-back on the trusted traveler security check. And, perhaps most important, it would not protect our security; in fact, it would create a security hole by giving some travelers a “get out of security free” card – a problem that prompted the first director of the TSA to reject the concept.

“Not only are terrorists going to be able to bypass security through forged documentation and fallible technology,” Steinhardt said, “the little guy is going to be subjected to the same hassles at the airport, while the first-class or business passenger gets a free pass.”

For more on CAPPS II and Trusted Traveler see:

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The latest in National Security

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About National Security

National Security issue image

The ACLU’s National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.