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Senate scrutinizes air travel database

The U.S. Congress takes a first step toward curbing a government computer system that will perform intensive background checks on American citizens who are traveling by air.

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Congress on Thursday took the first step toward curbing a government computer system that will perform intensive background checks on American citizens who are traveling by air.

Citing concerns about privacy, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to increase congressional oversight of a secretive data-mining and passenger-profiling system under development at the Transportation Security Administration. Delta Air Lines plans to begin testing the system at three airports this month.

"A system that seeks out information on every air traveler or anyone who poses a possible risk to U.S. security, and then uses that information to assign a possible threat score to each one, raises some very serious privacy questions," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "It's a matter of good public policy for the privacy and civil liberties implications of this program to be reported to Congress."

Few details have been made public about the Bush administration's airport security plans, which include a project called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS). It's not clear whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) envisions a watch list subjecting suspected terrorists and criminals to heightened scrutiny--or a "no fly" list that prevents specific people from boarding a plane. TSA says that each air traveler will be rated as a red, yellow or green security risk.

Some of the information that has been made public shows that the TSA wants airlines to provide electronically all the information they have about each passenger's travel plans and type of payment. If a person is deemed a risk, the information will be combined with "financial and transactional data, public source information, proprietary data, and information from law enforcement and intelligence sources" and stored in government computers for 50 years, according to a Federal Register notice.

The legislation approved by the Senate committee on Thursday gives the Department of Homeland Security three months to present Congress with a report on how CAPPS would impact "the privacy and civil liberties of United States Citizens." It would not halt the program, but the proposal would require information such as how long the data on air travelers will be retained, what privacy safeguards will be in place and how errors will be corrected.

On Feb. 28, the TSA announced it had chosen Lockheed Martin Aeronautics to develop CAPPS. In a statement at the time, the Department of Transportation said "CAPPS is being designed with the utmost concern for the individual privacy rights of American citizens."

Delta was the first air carrier to sign up to submit data on its passengers to the government under CAPPS. In response, privacy activists have launched a campaign.

Wyden's legislation is an amendment to the Air Cargo Security Bill, which the full Senate must approve before it goes to the House of Representatives for a vote there.