Computer Assisted Passenger PreScreening System II

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The Computer Assisted Passenger PreScreening System II (CAPPS II) was reported in January 2004 as the "latest version of the Computer Assisted Passenger PreScreening System [that is] run by the airlines." CAPPS II essentially provides a high tech method of Passenger Profiling and a means for creating a more sophisticated airline passenger watchlist. However, as reported by Robert C. Herguth in the January 13, 2004, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, CAPPS II was "riddled with problems."

CAPPS II was "killed off" by the Transportation Security Administration in June 2004 and "supplanted" by the new passenger-checking program Secure Flight which was to be introduced in early 2005. [1]

How CAPPS II "Works"

Herguth explained in January 2004 how the system was supposed to work:

"A passenger booking a flight who now must give a name, address and phone number will be asked for a 'full' name, address, phone number and date of birth, said Mark Hatfield, director of communications for the Transportation Security Administration.
"The information will be sent to private-sector security firms that will be hired by the government, and 'they will take the information and run it against commercial databases and assign a value, basing a value on the certainty of you are who you say you are -- that you are John Smith who lives at 17 Maple Ave. in Peoria, Ill.,' Hatfield said.
"A score is sent to the government, which then runs its own check, running names against FBI, intelligence and other watchlists, he said.
"Passengers secretly will be assigned a color: green reflects no threat, and checkpoint screening should be normal; yellow means a passenger will undergo additional wanding by handheld metal detectors and red means 'you're not getting on the plane -- in fact, you'll have a visit with law enforcement,' Hatfield said.
"The new process, for most folks, 'will be pretty transparent,' he said.
"Currently, around 15 percent of air travelers are forced to undergo secondary screening at checkpoints. The new system should drop that to 5 percent or less, officials said.
"Everybody still will have to walk through metal detectors and put carry-ons on X-ray conveyors."
"The new effort will affect everyone flying commercially in the United States -- hundreds of millions of people every year -- and require that passengers cough up more information about themselves so more reliable electronic background checks can be conducted, federal officials said. ... The result, they hope, will be a system that better weeds out violent criminals and suspected terrorists, and tags fewer people who aren't threats for additional screening at airport checkpoints."

In the January 23, 2003, Wired News, Ryan Singel wrote that "the Transportation Security Agency announced its intent to create a new passenger-screening database that [would] be the centerpiece of a system to scan for potential terrorists by instantly checking every domestic traveler's credit history, arrest record and property tax data.

"Unlike the controversial Total Information Awareness research project, the central database of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program II, or CAPPS II, will contain permanent financial records," Singel wrote, "intelligence reports and law enforcement records only on those suspected of posing a national security risk, according to the Jan. 15 Privacy Act notice.

"While data about nonthreatening passengers will be purged when a trip is completed, all travelers will be checked before departure against other public databases as well as private data sources like Acxiom and ChoicePoint, which keep a database of 18 billion records," Singel wrote.

"The idea of computers acting on hunches" vexed Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

"'The holy grail is that these systems will learn and adjust their suspicion calculators on their own, untethered from human input,' he said. 'But if you can't document the basis for a score or a decision, then you have a serious due process problem.'

"The TSA awarded preliminary grants last spring to Lockheed Martin, Infoglide Software, Ascent Technology and HNC Software, none of which responded to requests for comment [from Wired News]," Singel wrote.

Ben H. Bell III, "who led the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force at the Department of Justice, will run the program through the newly created Office of National Risk Assessment," Singel wrote. "However, the program could be frozen if the proposed Data-Mining Moratorium Act passes."

External links



  • "What is CAPPS II? How does it work?" Electronic Frontier Foundation: "CAPPS II would allow TSA to access personal information about you available in both government and commercial databases, and to use this information to 'tag' you according to how much of a threat you appear to pose to the safety of those aboard the airplane." The EFF concisely explains the reasons for concern.
  • "How CAPPS II Works," "Researchers at MIT recently published a {highly technical} research paper that demonstrates why CAPPS II actually makes flying more dangerous, not less": Why CAPPS II Makes Flying MORE Dangerous (A Lay Explanation of the MIT Research Paper 'Carnival Booth: An Algorithm for Defeating the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening System' by Russell L. Brand, Ph.D., Computer Security Theorist).
  • "Focus on CAPPS," "CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening) is a system that profiles all airline travelers, using a massive secret database of information to assign 'threat levels'." Includes more current article links.
  • Privacy: Feature on CAPPS II, American Civil Liberties Union, September 5, 2003.

Articles & Commentary


  • Julia Scheeres, "What They (Don't) Know About You," Wired News, May 11, 2001: "In the old days, FBI agents put in a lot of legwork into tracking citizens, especially if they moved around a lot. Now, instead of digging through documents in dusty bureaucratic outposts, agents can simply log onto the FBI's very own page [ link no longer works] on the website of Choicepoint, which is the biggest data supplier to law enforcement."


  • "Private Info Becoming Plane Truth," Wired News, September 16, 2002: "Initial rollout of what may eventually become the world's largest silicon repository of personal data could be less than 90 days away. As expected, civil liberties groups aren't happy about it. ... In addition to accessing FBI, National Crime Information Center (NCIC)[2] and State Department databases, CAPPS II is expected to spider IRS, Social Security Administration, state motor vehicle and corrections department, credit bureau and bank records. ... Though the TSA has stated that people whose records are pockmarked with unpaid parking tickets, unfiled tax returns and overdue child-support payments have nothing to fear from CAPPS II when trying to fly from point A to point B, civil liberties advocates aren't so sure."
  • Airport Report, American Association of Airport Executives, September 23, 2002: "The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is 'well down the road' on implementing CAPPS II (the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), an identity technology system 'that relies on mining large data sets to better select those air travelers who should receive additional scrutiny at the security checkpoints,'" Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta said.
  • "TSA Said To Be 'Deficient' In Screening," Wired News, October 1, 2002.


  • Ryan Singel, "Bills: Down With Citizen Database," Wired News, January 17, 2003.
  • Ryan Singel, "More Checks on U.S. Travelers," Wired News, January 23, 2003.
  • Deborah Pierce, "Law & Technology: CAPPS II," The Seattle Press, March 11, 2003.
  • "Recent CAPPS News,", April 15, 2003.
  • Robert O'Harrow, Jr., "TSA Modifies Screening Plan. Computerized Analysis Changed in Response to Criticism That It's Intrusive," Washington Post, June 14, 2003.
  • Ryan Singel, "Data Dump Required Before Flights," Wired News, August 1, 2003: "Just before flying, the passenger's name, birth date, address and phone number will be checked against a commercial database such as those maintained by ChoicePoint or Experian. The data companies then will use algorithms to judge how likely it is that a person booking the ticket is really who he says he is. ... The TSA then will check the name against terrorist watch lists and possibly lists of wanted suspects and immigration violators. ... The airline will issue a boarding pass, encoded with either a green, yellow or red score that will tell screeners whether to physically search a given passenger. In the case of a red score, federal law enforcement officials would be called in. ... The notice is less clear about what the agency will do with data about non-U.S. citizens, including Europeans, who enjoy much greater privacy protections due to the European Union's data-protection directive." Also see December 17, 2003, article below and EPIC news items on "EU-US Airline Passenger Data Disclosure."
  • Ryan Singel, "JetBlue Data to Fuel CAPPS Test," Wired News, September 16, 2003.
  • Press Release: "TSA: No Final "Privacy Impact Assessment" for Controversial Airline Passenger Screening System," Electronic Privacy Information Center, September 25, 2003.
  • Ryan Singel, "Congress Puts Brakes on CAPPS II," Wired News, September 26, 2003: "Congress moved Wednesday to delay the planned takeoff of a controversial new airline passenger-profiling system until an independent study of its privacy implications and effectiveness at stopping terrorism can be completed."
  • Chris Strohm, "House lawmakers grill TSA over aviation security," National Journal's Technology Daily, October 28, 2003.
  • "As Congress Puts Controversial CAPPS II Program on Hold, ACLU Urges TSA to Abandon Super Snoop Profiling System," ACLU, September 30, 2003.
  • Chris Strohm, "TSA falls short in evaluating aviation security programs," National Journal's Technology Daily, November 5, 2003.
  • Curt Anderson, "Ashcroft Chips Away At The Constitution...Again," Capitol Hill Blue, November 6, 2003: "The FBI will be able to more easily check a person's background for potential terrorist activities under national security guidelines issued Wednesday by Attorney General John Ashcroft. ... Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the guidelines raise another caution flag in the nation's fight against terrorism. The ACLU and others have criticized the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that expanded government's surveillance and detention powers after the Sept. 11 attacks. ... 'This is exactly what Americans are worried about,' he said. 'It's the notion that the government can put your life under a microscope without any evidence that you're doing anything wrong.' ... Edgar said the changes could mark a return to the days when the FBI routinely opened investigations on Vietnam War protesters and other dissidents, before the first national security investigation guidelines were issued in 1976."
  • Edward Hasbrouck, "'Total Travel Information Awareness'. Travel Data and Privacy," The Practical Nomad, November 10, 2003. Lengthy article that covers history and numerous aspects of CAPPS/CAPPS II.
  • Drew Clark, "TSA not collecting passenger data for screening system," National Journal's Technology Daily, November 17, 2003.
  • Drew Clark, "Security official details screening process for air travelers," National Journal's Technology Daily, November 20, 2003.
  • Ryan Singel, "Congress Expands FBI Spying Power," Wired News, November 24, 2003: "Congress approved a bill on Friday that expands the reach of the Patriot Act, reduces oversight of the FBI and intelligence agencies and, according to critics, shifts the balance of power away from the legislature and the courts."
  • Richard B. Schmitt, "Patriot Act Author Has Concerns. Detaining citizens as 'enemy combatants' -- a policy not spelled out in the act -- is flawed, the legal scholar says," Los Angeles Times (Common Dreams), November 30, 2003.
  • Ryan Singel, "Profiling System Takeoff Delayed," Wired, December 12, 2003: "But before the new system takes off, it first has to satisfy critics in Congress, researchers from the U.S. General Accounting Office, concerned air travel industry groups and even the European Union. ... Congress, which mandated a better air travel security program after the terrorist hijackings on Sept. 11, has signaled that it is wary of the proposal put forth by the Transportation Security Administration for CAPPS II."
  • "Bush Signs Bill Expanding FBI Authority," Associated Press (Yahoo! News), December 14, 2003: "The bill expands the number of businesses from which the FBI and other U.S. authorities conducting intelligence work can demand financial records without seeking court approval. ... Under current law, 'national security letters' can be issued to traditional financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, to require them to turn over information. The bill expands the definition of financial institution to include other businesses that deal with large amounts of cash."
  • "US gets access to airline details," BBC, December 17, 2003: "The EU and the US have agreed a deal on sharing data on all airline passengers crossing the Atlantic as part of the fight against terrorism. ... It means that most personal details given at check-in will be sent to the US as soon as passengers leave Europe. ... The deal ends months of talks and comes despite protests over loss of privacy from the European parliament."


  • Sara Kehaulani Goo, "U.S. to Push Airlines for Passenger Records. Travel Database to Rate Security Risk Factors," Washington Post, December 12, 2004: "The government will compel airlines and airline reservations companies to hand over all passenger records for scrutiny by U.S. officials, after failing to win cooperation in the program's testing phase. The order could be issued as soon as next month. Under the system, all travelers passing through a U.S. airport are to be scored with a number and a color that ranks their perceived threat to the aircraft. ... Another program that is to be introduced this year that seeks to speed frequent fliers through security lines in exchange for volunteering personal information to the government. ... The two new initiatives will augment a system introduced last week to fingerprint and photograph millions of foreign visitors on arrival in the United States."
  • "Papers, Please. CAPPS II testing has been restarted,", January 13, 2004: "The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration continues in its attempts to set up defacto internal border controls at our nation's airports. ... The latest information on this, as well as information on the collaboration of Galileo, a subsidiary of Cendant, Inc. in this test of the CAPPS II system can be found at:"
  • Ryan Singel, "Life After Death for CAPPS II?" Wired News, July 16, 2004.
  • Noah Schachtman, "The Man Who Helped Kill CAPPS II," Wired News, July 19, 2004.
  • Ryan Singel, "Secure Flight Gets Wary Welcome," Wired News, August 27, 2004.

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