WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration (search) said Wednesday it will order airlines to turn over passengers' personal records in the next couple of months to test a computerized passenger screening program that could keep dangerous people off airlines.
Some members of Congress, though, said the project is so flawed that it will ultimately be canceled.
David Stone, acting TSA administrator, also said preliminary version of a consolidated watch list will be online by March 31 for government agencies to access.
Stone, testifying before a House aviation subcommittee, said the agency intends to hire a privacy officer this month and to set up two oversight committees for the prescreening project - one to deal with privacy issues, one for technology.
The Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (search), or CAPPS II, would rank all air passengers according to the likelihood of their being terrorists. But some say the project would violate privacy rights, while others are concerned it would cost the private sector too much money.
Congress last year ordered the General Accounting Office (search), its investigative arm, to report on whether CAPPS II safeguards passenger privacy. The auditors reported last month that the government hasn't adequately addressed security and privacy concerns.
U.S. airlines are refusing to voluntarily turn over passenger data to the government so it can test the system. They echo their customers' concerns about government snooping and the possibility that people will be wrongly labeled as terrorists.
The Air Transport Association, the trade group for major airlines, has come up with seven "privacy principles" that it says the government should follow in implementing CAPPS II.
The guidelines seek to ensure the TSA collects only personal information pertaining to aviation security, stores it securely and gets rid of it as soon as travel is completed. The airlines also said that passengers must be allowed to access their personal information and correct any errors.
The TSA says it agrees that privacy must be protected. A privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, has been hired to make sure federal privacy law is upheld. The agency won't hold on to passengers' records, except for people who might be terrorists. The TSA also says it has established a way for passengers to redress inaccurate information, though that remains to be tested.
The Business Travel Coalition (search), a group that wants to lower the cost of business travel, said in a statement that business would be disrupted if travelers were inadvertently snared by the system.
The group also said that CAPPS II would burden corporations and travel agencies with higher costs.
"Firms in the travel industry distribution business face unknowable costs at this time to reconfigure their systems in accordance with the requirements of a CAPPS II," the coalition said.
The passenger screening program would check information such as a name, address and birth date against commercial and government databases. Each passenger would be given one of three color-coded ratings.
Suspected terrorists and violent criminals would be designated as red and forbidden to fly. Passengers who raise questions would be classified as yellow and would receive extra security screening. The vast majority would be designated green and allowed through routine screening.