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Uncle Sam demands all air travel records

'CAPPS Lite' to be tested. Volunteers not needed

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The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has demanded the passenger records of all domestic flights during the month of June, 2004, so that it can test its new "CAPPS Lite" data mining operation before putting it into production, the Associated Press reports.

Passengers' names will be checked against secret bad-guy lists maintained by the FBI. The new scheme, dubbed "Secure Flight" for that warm and fuzzy feeling, replaces the much-despised CAPPS-II data mining regime. CAPPS-II was designed to check passenger names through commercial databases. After some fuzzy math, each passenger was to have been assigned a personal "risk level", and put through the appropriate amount of extra interrogation, strip searching, and tissue sampling. The CAPPS-II scheme was recently abandoned because of bad press and numerous technological snafus.

The new system differs (we are told) by using only super secret lists from the crack terrorist busters at the FBI. Because of the necessary secrecy, airlines will not have access to the information. Instead, the airlines will surrender their customers' data to TSA, which will do the comparisons and decide whether one gets to fly or not.

Airlines will be ordered to surrender passenger name records (PNRs), which can contain a great deal of information, depending on local regulations. According to wire reports, the data can include the passenger's name, address, telephone number, flight numbers, point of origin, destinations, flight times, and form of payment. It can also include credit card numbers, meal requests, hotel itinerary, traveling companions, the travel agency used, and comments from airline employees indicating whether a passenger likes to make cynical remarks to personnel who have nothing but public safety at heart.

Note that a passenger's itinerary can include information about one's accommodations, and the details of companions with whom one might share said accommodations. While DHS chirps optimistically about the new scheme's improvements in privacy protection, it has not actually said that there will be some automated mechanism for scrubbing such deeply personal data from the records that it demands.

The new system will suffer from the same problems plaguing CAPPS-II: of producing false-positive matches, and the difficulty of getting oneself off a terror list that one is not even permitted to know exists, and that bureaucrats will almost certainly refuse to confirm or deny exists. Because the airlines will not be involved, any possible resolution of these maddening difficulties will be even farther removed from the passenger's grasp.

There will also be considerable mission creep, we are told. It's rare when a paranoid bureaucracy actually confesses this up front, but certainly refreshing. TSA also says it will test a companion system to compare passenger names with information from commercial databases, much as CAPPS-II was to do, in order to see if passenger records can be used to detect the outrage du jour, identity theft. Ten years ago, it would have been deadbeat dads; five years ago it would have been online pedophiles. But since indignation over these groups has faded recently, it's no surprise that TSA should try to sneak its pre-planned mission creep in under the latest hot-button source of public anxiety. With that and the terrorists, it's got all its bases covered. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a comprehensive guide to system hardening, malware protection, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

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