Checking You Twice
The next time a ticket agent asks you, "Did you pack your own bags?" notice their eyes are glued to the computer screen rather than looking at you. Your logical answers, "Yes," or "My elf did me the favor" may not matter if you have been flagged by the ticket agent's computer.Flagging, by means of a new computerized passenger profiling system, means you and your luggage will be searched. Northwest Airlines began testing the "computer assisted passenger" screening (CAPS) at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in October. CAPS, tested since April at other major airports across the country, is designed to alert airlines to passengers who may be potential terrorists.But, according to civil rights experts, the system invades privacy and discriminates against Arab Americans and other minority groups. The new database is in response to a call for tighter security by Vice President Gore's Commission on Aviation Safety. A day after the July 17, 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, President Clinton formed the commission. While the downing was initially blamed on terrorists, the explosion that killed 230 people is now said to have been caused by mechanical error. Still, about $429 million was earmarked in the 1997 federal fiscal budget to meet the commission's 20 recommendations for improving air security.Better methods for matching bags to passengers, more sophisticated chemical sniffing devices, and better imagery to detect explosives are being developed to combat terrorism. These measures, along with CAPS, are the first major upgrades in air security since the 1970s, when technologies were geared toward thwarting hijackers, according to Paul Hudson, executive director of the Washington DC-based Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP). The project, composed of family members of travelers who have perished in airline disasters, is consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on CAPS.But until those technologies exist, the FAA, along with the US Justice Department, are relying on CAPS and the FAA won't give any details about how the system will gather what could be sensitive information about air travelers. "Unfortunately, if we give specifics about how it will operate, it gives the people who would be tempted to bypass the system somehow clues on how they could do that," says Mitch Barker, a public affairs officer with the FAA in Seattle. "But it's intended to recognize that there is a threat and to make sure that anyone who might present a threat to the traveling public is not allowed to board aircraft."Barker revealed only that the airlines will use data from frequent flyer records. They will also look at a passenger's itinerary, travel history, whether the passenger paid with cash or a credit card, and whether the passenger is flying on a one-way ticket. Other air travel security experts were equally reluctant to reveal how the airlines will get their information. But, according to the February 1997 issue of Air Transport World magazine, the profiling system will also include computer encrypted data from the FBI, the CIA, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.About 5 percent of air travelers are likely to be flagged at check-in by a ticket agent's computer, according to Issy Boim, president of Air Security International. The Houston-based private company is consulting with the FAA on CAPS and Boim says ticket agents will not have any access to personal information, they'll simply see an alert on their computer screen when something is amiss. Airport security will then question the passenger, and look through their carry-on and checked baggage to make sure the passenger is not carrying explosives, firearms or other harmful devices.Boim claims the whole procedure will take no more than 10 to 15 minutes and will become more accepted as people realize its importance to air security."It's like when you come to customs and for some reason -- you don't know why -- you will be asked more questions and they'll send your baggage for a search," says Boim. "You take it for granted. It will be the same when passengers show up to check in."But, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the system has often flagged people on the basis of irrelevant criteria, such as someone's apparent ethnicity. Gregory Nojime, a legislative analyst with the ACLU's Washington DC office, says that if a person is flying to a country on a US State Department terrorist list, that person may be selected to be searched."It's not difficult to realize that criterion is going to have a disparate impact on some racial group, for example, those who fly to Syria," Nojime explains. "The people who fly to Syria tend to be Syrian Americans going to visit their relatives. That's not a crime."Nojime says since Northwest Airlines began experimenting with CAPS, the ACLU has received more calls complaining about that carrier than any other airline."One grandmother called and said that she was made to remove all her things from her luggage," says Nojime. "It was put on the floor and she had to put it back in her luggage in front of all the other passengers. She was crying, because they were looking on thinking 'Oh no, why is this woman being singled out -- is she a terrorist?'"Nojime believes the woman was singled out based solely on her appearance, which the FAA denies is one of its "flagging" criteria."We don't think as an airport operator [CAPS] would be invasive," according to Ron Wilson, spokesman for SFO. "The Justice Department has assured us that it will not be. The system does not give any consideration to race, color, gender, religion, or national or ethnic origin," he continues. "It only checks on criminal backgrounds, the travel habits of passengers, and whether they have been refused flights before or have caused problems onboard airlines."Strangely, the airlines and the FAA say that CAPS will not be checking for run-of-the-mill troublemakers. Those types of people include the drunk businessman who, two years ago in United's first class, defecated on a food cart; the recent incident where a family in coach on Northwest threw a riot after being cut off from their supply of alcohol; and the man who punched a pilot after learning his Northwest flight was delayed. Those unruly people are not welcome at 30,000 feet, said Wilson, and individual airlines have banned them from their flights. They will be refused service when attempting to reserve a flight, according to John Austin, a spokesman for Northwest.Nevertheless, Austin says the CAPS system -- which Northwest volunteered to try -- is only meant to screen for passengers who may be threats to air security. Ethnic or racial criteria, says Austin, are never used. "Not only are we sensitive to it as a human rights issue and a customer service issue, but it's frankly bad security," Austin explains. "If you made your security decisions based on stereotypes like that, you would ignore the fact that bad folks come in all shapes and sizes and colors and genders and everything else. You have to be smarter than that."But, Austin would not reveal what criteria Northwest will be looking at when screening passengers. "It's intensely frustrating not just for the passengers, but for our folks, too," says Austin. "Our people want to answer an honest question that's put to them, like 'why me?' Unfortunately, in this case, we can't give them that answer."It's that lack of information that angers civil rights groups. "We're as concerned about airline safety as anyone is," says Dorothy Erlich, executive director for the Northern California ACLU. "But, it appears that they are creating a massive, secret database, having personal information about everybody who flies, about their flying habits, and anything else they can get their hands on."The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, DC has also raised concerns. "If there is a clear-cut discriminatory case, the airline will say 'Well, we're just simply following FAA guidelines,'" says Sam Husseini, spokesman for ADC. "When we turn to the FAA, they say, 'No, our guidelines are not discriminatory.' So how do we know who's telling the truth when the guidelines are secret?"Husseini says his organization has received more than 200 complaints about discriminatory treatment, ever since heightened security measures were put in place following the TWA Flight 800 explosion last year. But according to the National Transportation and Safety Board, sabotage of US airlines caused 318 deaths between 1982 and 1996. Pan Am Flight 103, blown up by plastic explosives over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, is the only proven bombing of a US carrier.The majority of airline disasters are caused by mechanical or human error. Another concern raised by the ACLU is that the information gathered by the FAA could be wrong, the way credit reports are often full of errors. But, air travelers will have no way of checking on the accuracy of data gathered about them. "There is no mechanism today for a passenger who gets into the loop, who is selected repeatedly, to get out of the loop now," says the ACLU's Nojime.Air security experts defend CAPS as just a temporary measure meant to screen for terrorists until sophisticated new equipment is developed that can detect plastic explosives. And, if the FAA deems the CAPS experiment successful, they will give the program to other air carriers.