Ticket-counter Totalitarians

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WASHINGTON (UPI) — Until recently, when you called in to an airline reservation clerk or attempted to purchase an airline ticket in person, the worst consequence you might suffer would be an insolent ticket clerk or finding out there were no seats on your flight of choice. Under a plan being developed by the Department of Homeland Security, and its component agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the consequences of attempting such a purchase could be much more dire. It could land you in handcuffs.

Welcome to the wonderful world of CAPPS II — the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, Phase Two, unveiled by the federal government recently as yet another in the growing, and increasingly-intrusive, arsenal of tools with which it is trying to fight terrorism. The real target in this latest effort, however, appears to be the traveling public, not the occasional potential terrorist.


While all of us — especially those like myself who travel frequently by air — recognize, accept and appreciate reasonable efforts to make air travel as safe as possible from another attempt to use passenger jets as guided missiles, this proposed data profiling system is not going to do that. Instead, it will subject every potential commercial air traveler to an extensive background check of his or her personal history, shared with commercial data bases and innumerable law enforcement agencies, simply because they have chosen to exercise their right to travel by air.

All this in the hope by some government analysts that by gathering, analyzing and profiling all this information on the unsuspecting air traveler, the rare terrorist will be magically identified.

The best way to catch potential terrorists is to improve our woefully and demonstrably inadequate foreign intelligence and immigration enforcement mechanisms. This idea appears lost on the new breed of bureaucrat, enamored of “data-mining” and oblivious to privacy concerns of the average, non-terrorist citizen.

Contrary to earlier promises by the officials tasked with developing this particular program, CAPPS II would not be limited to gathering evidence on foreign terrorists, but would be targeted to ensnare anyone, foreign or domestic, suspected by some government person of belonging to or indirectly supporting an organization the government doesn’t like, such as an anti-abortion organization.

Also contrary to previous promises, the system as proposed by the folks at Homeland Security would be designed to identify air travelers against whom there might be an outstanding domestic warrant, perhaps from a local jurisdiction in which a person engaged in a bar fight.

The point is not that such persons — that is, someone against whom a warrant is outstanding — should not be apprehended. Rather, it is not nor should it be the job of an airline ticket agent to identify alleged lawbreakers for arrest.

Simply put, American citizens should not be forced to subject themselves to arrest, merely because they chose to attempt to buy an airline ticket.

Picture also, if you will, the problem one would have if one’s name were mistakenly identified by the CAPPS II system as even a “yellow” (subject to enhanced screening and search) flag (much less a “red” flag individual). I know it’s difficult to imagine a commercial or government computer system making such a mistake, but given that some two-and-a-half-million Americans travel by air each day, and recognizing that error rates in massive data systems can typically be in the 25 percent range, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to quickly conclude how many law-abiding citizens would be subject to severe inconvenience — to say the least — each day.

Anyone who doubts this simply needs to grab the phone book and call the nearest David Nelson to find out how easy it is to have your name removed from a government computer after it’s been entered in error.

How long will the Department of Homeland Security maintain all these records? Well, it promises that the “vast majority” will be kept “only” for a few days, but some perhaps indefinitely. But how will we ever know? After all, the data will be widely shared and disseminated (how else to catch the citizen on whom someone, somewhere at some time has or had a warrant outstanding).

This slippery slope of digital data-mining and passenger profiling is long, fast and rough. And where it ends, nobody knows; perhaps it never will end.

”’Bob Barr served in the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to January 2003, and prior to that as a United States Attorney and an official with the CIA. He currently practices law in Georgia, and works with a number of organizations in the Washington area on privacy and civil liberties matters.”’

”'”Outside View” commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.”’