Airport Background Checks Set to Change

The Homeland Security Department is tossing out huge chunks of a multi-million-dollar plan to run background checks on airline passengers.

So many people objected to the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (search), CAPPS II for short, that the makeover will even include a new name.

Critics especially disliked CAPPS II because it would check identity by running a passengers' personal information against government and commercial databases.

Homeland Security officials say the new plan will likely use a different system to check identity. Officials also say the new system will give passengers the ability to correct mistakes if they're wrongly identified as terrorists or suspects.

The makeover will include a new name, though that, too, is turning out to be a dilemma for the Homeland Security Department.

The working title, "Secure Passage," was abandoned because it had the same initials as another aviation security program. In a city that loves its acronyms, it's best not to double up.

No one thinks a name change alone will be enough to resurrect CAPPS II.

Dennis McBride, director of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (search), a research institute that focuses on science and technology, was briefed by Homeland Security officials on CAPPS II's progress last week.

"Getting there from here won't be easy," McBride concluded.

The Homeland Security officials working on the project are likely to get rid of one element that CAPPS II's critics dislike: making sure people are who they say they are by running their personal information against commercial and government databases.

Any new system would probably have a different process for verifying identity, according to Homeland Security officials.

Another problem is how to give airline passengers the ability to correct mistakes if they're wrongly identified as terrorists or suspects.

Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy said the department is working on that.

"That's something we clearly intend to test, to have a process for people to get redress if they feel that they're being screened unnecessarily or too frequently," Murphy said.

But what's really needed, say CAPPS II's numerous critics, is for the project's developers to drop their passion for secrecy.

Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell said CAPPS II wouldn't have become a political debacle if Homeland Security officials had been open about how the system was supposed to work. The coalition is an advocacy group that tries to lower the cost of business travel.

"It was badly handled," Mitchell said. "It scared everybody. The lack of transparency and inclusiveness is what really doomed it."

Mitchell said privacy advocates and airline passenger groups might not have objected so strenuously to CAPPS II if they'd been included in the project's development.

"People would have been able to contribute solutions and buy into the process," Mitchell said.

But privacy advocate David Sobel thinks CAPPS II may be so fundamentally flawed that no amount of reshaping or repackaging can save it.

Sobel characterizes CAPPS II as a secret system of surveillance on tens of millions of people who fly on commercial airlines.

"It's a fundamental dilemma that arises when the government attempts to use intelligence information against average citizens," said Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (search), a Washington-based research group.

But Paul Rosenzweig, a researcher with the Heritage Foundation think tank, predicts Homeland Security officials will come up with a successor to CAPPS II.

"They're strongly committed, as I think they should be, to the idea that we need to know something about people who travel on planes," said Rosenzweig, who attended the meeting last week with Homeland Security officials.