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CAPPS-II database Hell

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Database Hell

Stone showed little enthusiasm for the PP5 Program, but he is a big proponent of CAPPS II, having touted it before the same House committee back in March as a scheme promising to deliver "vital impact ... on aviation security."

He has studied the vendor's PR boilerplate with great care. CAPPS II is a "second-generation prescreening system [that] will be a centralized, automated, threat-based, real time, risk assessment platform ... expected to employ technology and data analysis techniques to conduct an information-based identity authentication," he gushed.

The system is a product of aviation defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corporation, promoted by US Transportation Secretary and former Lockheed Martin Vice President Norman Mineta, Stone's boss.

At present, the grand "risk assessment platform" is mired in failure. What little of it currently works has not been tested adequately because carriers are withholding passenger data in fear of a public backlash on privacy grounds.

The accuracy of the many databases that CAPPS II will scour for its incriminating evidence has not yet been established. Procedures for passengers to detect inaccurate data, and get inaccurate data and false positives resolved, have not been implemented. Major privacy threats inherent in the system, particularly those involving restrictions on access, have not been addressed. The potential for malevolent identity thieves to impersonate innocent travelers remains high.

False consciousness

This is all good, because CAPPS II is one of the worst possible solutions to airport security. It won't prevent terrorists from flying; rather, it will increase the probability of another successful attack using commercial aircraft.

The reason is painfully obvious: a group can very conveniently use the system to pre-screen its members and discover which of them have profiles that result in extra scrutiny. Thus CAPPS II is a superb tool for terrorists to use in assessing airport defenses. A group of unarmed terrorists can board two or three flights in succession and observe how the system reacts to them. If, after a few trial runs, they discover that they're allowed to board unchallenged, they can assume that their profiles do not trigger a warning. Armed with that information, they'll stand a good chance of mounting a real attack.

CAPPS II is a disaster for two reasons: first, it will create a false sense of security among airline staff and provide further excuses for screeners to perform poorly; and second, it offers terrorists an excellent training device that they can use to assemble a group of people who can get onto airplanes without arousing suspicion. Ironically, the closer CAPPS II comes to achieving its stated goals, the more effective it will become as a terrorist tool.

So it is indeed good that its development is going poorly. The problem, however, is that the recently publicized failures among human screeners will provide rationale to rush it into service. CAPPS II may well find itself on a fast track, pushed hard by those who would exploit the popular misconception that computers and other high-tech gizmos can compensate for human fallibility. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a complete guide to system hardening, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux, available at discount in the USA, and in the UK.

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