Are you tired of arriving at airports two hours early to make it through the requisite security clearances? America’s Transportation Security Administration (ATSA) has decided to solve this problem. Beginning next year, color codes, much like those adopted by the Department of Homeland Security to gauge our terror alert level, will be its answer.
On face, the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPS II) seems like it may alleviate the frustration. The program works as follows: the ATSA assigns each passenger a color that is meant to correspond to his or her perceived threat. This color – green, yellow or red – is then used to determine the individual’s security level. Green passengers, those deemed least likely to pose a serious security risk, will be whisked through security. More dangerous passengers will be given a yellow rating and face stringent security inspections. A small percentage of potential passengers, approximately one to two percent, will be coded red and completely restricted from flying. Theoretically, this system will allow normal passengers to enjoy a safe trip without the hassle of tough security screenings.
How will the government decide on each individual’s color rating? Airlines will provide the ATSA with the name, address, phone number, date of birth and travel plan of each and every passenger that has purchased a ticket. The ATSA has access to most levels of governmental intelligence information. Thus, the aforementioned information should be enough to identify most individuals. Once the passenger has been identified, the ATSA will then use both government and commercial intelligence to decide if he or she is a security threat and to classify him or her accordingly.
While the government is passing this system off as a revolutionary innovation in airline security, it is interesting to investigate how effective it will actually be. It is true that some terrorists may have criminal records, be in the nation on expired visas, or have similar indicators that will allow the government to pinpoint them for examination. The vast majority, however, will have clean records. Even with the sweeping changes the Department of Homeland Security has made since September 11, 2001, it is impossible for the government to get an accurate inventory of exactly who is associated with international terrorist organizations. There is no reason to believe that these networks, the main target of this new system, will not realize the ramifications of CAPPS II.
Under CAPPS II, individuals who manage to attain green clearance (about ninety percent of those flying) will have a very low likelihood of receiving adequate attention from inspectors. Whereas current random inspection policies make it impossible to predict who will face more stringent investigation, under the new plan if one is relatively confident that he will be part of the ninety percent that is inspected less rigorously it will be much easier for him to sneak a weapon aboard. By decreasing randomness in airport security, the government is making life easier for law-abiding citizens and organized criminals alike. One practice flight is all that will be necessary to gauge what color an individual has been assigned. Then, only terrorists who received green classifications in the past will be sent on deadly missions.
Since it does not seem likely that this policy will effectively keep international terrorist organizations’ members out of the sky, the next question is who will prosper from the new regulations. One group that will benefit from CAPPS II is that of law enforcers. While international terrorist organizations will be able to find members who can get a green light to fly, it is unlikely that average criminals will be able to take to the skies. In fact, the plan is that those who have criminal records or receive red lights for other reasons will be subject to interrogation and possibly arrest by the police. Thus, it becomes easier for policemen to locate potential suspects in crimes.
It is a dangerous precedent to give the government the authority to set up arbitrary checkpoints, such as before flights, to find wanted criminals. Are we soon going to see this intrusion in other areas of individual’s lives? Perhaps it would be convenient for the government to run similar safety checks on individuals who check into hotels or enter crowded areas. There is very little logically separating these alternative checkpoints.
The other party hoping to benefit from these new regulations is the struggling airline industry. Airlines have yet to completely recover from September 11th and CAPPS II gives them hope in two distinct ways.
First, the airlines are hoping that making procedures less stringent for ninety percent of their passengers will make the entire security process quicker and less distasteful, encouraging more passengers to return to the air, without seeming to compromise safety. With more people turning to trains, buses and other forms of transportation to avoid long lines at X-ray machines, this is a valid concern. On the other hand, compromising security is not the way to do it. It may seem that there is an economic incentive for airlines to keep their security measures high. It is very bad for a company’s reputation if one of its planes is penetrated by terrorists. But as with all things, the government’s decisions change these market forces. Thanks to government intervention, the airlines can become increasingly irresponsible.
As long as airlines fulfill their obligation to turn over to the government the required information, they have very little accountability for the actual safety of their passengers. From this point on the government is responsible for compiling the data, assigning the color codes and running security at the gate. The airlines are no longer responsible for who or what enters their plane, because any subversion will be the responsibility of CAPPS II, ATSA and the United States government. As long as the Bush Administration is willing to take the negative publicity, it is in the airlines’ best interest to streamline the process as much as possible in the hope that it will persuade more passengers to fly.
Another consideration is how well the government can assign these colors. The government has very limited information. Even assuming the ATSA has complete access to criminal records, intelligence information and data from the private sector, their classifications will be littered with errors. Unfortunately these errors will either lead to dangerous individuals not being properly inspected or regular passengers, the very individuals the government intends to help, being unnecessarily hassled or detained because they were unfairly classified yellow or red.
When one takes into account that those classified red will not be allowed to fly, will be handed over to the police, and may be interrogated or jailed, these mistakes prove extremely costly.
It would be great to see shorter lines, fewer security procedures, and happier passengers aboard America’s airlines, but the price the CAPPS II plan proposes is simply too high. CAPPS II notifies terrorists of their chances of success, tells them which members to send to the airport, and guarantees fewer hassles to equally dangerous individuals, while only providing a government checkpoint for wanted felons and possible stimulus in the airline market until the next big disaster. The government has proven its inability to enforce existing laws such as removing individuals with expired visas from the nation. There is no reason to believe it will do a better job assigning these colors that can potentially have a significant negative impact on individuals’ lives while providing no clear benefits. Airlines need to clean up their security procedures. The government should not assume this responsibility for them.
Matthew Craig is a junior in Davenport College.