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Air Passenger Code Plan In Motion

Precautions in the name of air security are about to taken to a level unimaginable in the United States only a few years ago.

The Washington Post reports the Bush administration is expected to order as soon as next month the first step in setting up databases on all air passengers, to be used to color-code each air traveler according to his or her potential threat level.

Passengers coded red would be stopped from boarding; yellow would mean additional screening at security checkpoints; and green would mean an only standard level of scrutiny.

Airlines and airline reservation companies would reportedly be forced to turn over all passenger records to U.S. government officials, who struck out in a trial program was based on voluntary surrender of airline industry data.

Not a single airline agreed to turn over data voluntarily.

The Transportation Security Administration hasn't completely given up on the idea of voluntary surrender of personal information, however.

The Post says the TSA plans to introduce this year a program for frequent fliers who could get through check-in lines at the airport faster - if they agree to give the government access to some of their personal information.

The larger program, involving the databases, has been discussed in government circles for months and has sparked concerns by privacy watchdogs.

The planned database program for monitoring air travelers is called Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening, more commonly referred to as CAPPS II, because the one planned for rollout is a second generation of CAPPS I, the system now in use.

More than 8,000 people wrote the government with their concerns during the public comment period on CAPPS II, which ended on Sept. 30.

The American Civil Liberties Union, on its web site, objects to CAPPS II, saying it would make every American suspect, lacks due process protections for people who are unfairly labeled, is based on judgments made in secret, and would be easy for terrorists to circumvent.

The TSA, while noting that many of the comments it received appeared to be based on the same form letter, says on its web site that it has "significantly narrowed how the second-generation system will use passenger information to make flying more secure without impinging on individual privacy rights."

The government says the databases will not include bank records, credit ratings, or medical records.

Commercial database companies are expected to be involved in CAPPS II, but the TSA says they will be prohibited from storing or using passenger data for commercial purposes.

Boosters of CAPPS II argue that it will speed things up at the airport, by "reducing the number of people who undergo secondary screening, or who are consistently misidentified as potential terrorists."

Passengers who believe their data is wrong, or that the government's security assessment of them is wrong, are expected to address their complaints to a Passenger Advocate's Office to be set up to resolve those kinds of problems.

There will reportedly be some overlap between CAPPS II and the recently implemented U.S. VISIT program for fingerprinting and photographing foreigners, as both systems use the same terrorist and criminal watch lists.

In an interview with the Post, the department of Homeland Security's chief privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, says that if the databases are merged, there would be strict rules about which agencies could use the information and how it could be used.

Many details remain up in the air, including exactly how long the data that is collected would be retained.

The TSA is expected to begin testing CAPPS II this year at a number of airports.

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