Suit targets air-traveler screening

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Two Anchorage travel agencies and other Alaska plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit Monday seeking review of an airline passenger screening system they say the government is developing in secret.

Plaintiffs are seeking to force the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to notify the public about rules being created under the agency's Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II.

CAPPS II smacks of invasion of privacy rights because it's designed to identify suspected hijackers by running background checks on anybody who buys an airline ticket, the plaintiffs contend. But without giving the public any specifics, there's no way of addressing the rules, said James P. Harrison, a civil rights attorney based in Sacramento, Calif.

"We're not bringing a privacy claim," Harrison said. "We can't bring any claim if everything is done in secret. This lawsuit centers on the issue of whether or not this administration puts forward this entire program away from the public and allows no recourse for the public."

The 13-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage names several defendants, including the TSA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Jennifer Marty, a TSA spokeswoman for the Northwest region, said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

"TSA understands the flying public has an interest in privacy and we do as well," she said from Seattle. "This program will not be launched until those concerns are addressed."

According to TSA fact sheets on the agency's Web site, CAPPS is a computerized system created in 1997 for prescreening passengers. The program helps airlines flag passengers subject to further scrutiny, based on check-in information, passenger itinerary and government data on known or suspected terrorists.

CAPPS II, which builds on the original program, was initiated by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act passed by Congress in November 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under the new program, passengers will be required to provide full names, addresses, home phone numbers and date of birth when they make reservations, according to the TSA Web site. That information will be collected by airlines and then forwarded to the government, plaintiffs say. In recent months, several airlines have been criticized for already sharing passenger information with the government.

Under CAPPS II, personal information will be used to assign passengers an "identity identification score" signifying the level of confidence that passengers are who they claim to be.

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