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At the end of last February, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched its Traveler Redress Inquiry Program for the 30,000-plus individuals who in the years since September 11 have been misidentified as possible terrorists by the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) infamous “no fly” and “selectee” lists. These people may now ask for investigative reviews via an official website, in the hope that the TSA will eventually remove their names.

Alas, the realization of their hopes may be long postponed. Officially, the TSA’s much delayed Secure Flight computerized passenger prescreening system will roll out by fall 2008 at the earliest. But TSA administrators have told Congress that full implementation of the system–costing $140 million already and requiring at least $80 million more–may not happen before 2010. Translation: nobody at the DHS and TSA will be taking responsibility for removing any names from the watch lists, and individuals on the lists will continue to undergo extra screening of their persons and carry-ons.

In short, the farce of federal efforts to create an efficient terrorist profiling system to keep terrorists off airplanes–and the farce of privacy-advocacy organizations’ reactions to those efforts–will continue. Before September 11, 2001, the U.S. government’s list of suspected terrorists banned from air travel held 16 names. Afterward, every government agency indiscriminately dumped information about every potential suspect from its databases onto the watch lists. By March 2003, when the TSA did early tests of CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II), the watch lists had expanded to 75,000 names–many of them being, notoriously, common ones like Ted Kennedy and Robert Johnson.

CAPPS II would have required the collection of four pieces of personal data–name, address, telephone number, and birth date–to authenticate travelers’ identities. It then would have transmitted that information to commercial data-brokerage companies (primarily AcXiom, the self-styled “industry leader in the use of grid computing”) so as to check it against data mined from credit reports, voter-registration cards, driving records, and such, in order to then generate a secret “risk score” for every individual.

Needless to say, all this alone was sufficient to provoke organizations dedicated to civic liberties such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Additionally, however, the White House, DHS, and Justice Department wanted to expand CAPPS II so as to catch illegal aliens and domestic criminals, despite objections from TSA administrators who had promised to limit the system to profiling foreign terrorists. In the summer of 2004–when some of those administrators were threatening to mutiny, CAPPS II was a year overdue and nonfunctional, and the Government Accountability Office was reporting that the system wouldn’t protect individuals’ privacy–then-DHS chief Tom Ridge disingenuously suggested to reporters that it would be killed.

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Tagged: Computing, aeronautics, DHS

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