Statewatch News Online: US: Report on airline passenger screening

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US: Report on airline passenger screening

A report from the US Congressional Research Service on "Airline Passenger Prescreening and Counter-terrorism" highlights the different approaches being taken by the USA and the EU.

There are three main agencies deal with the screening of passengers in the US:

1. The Transport Security Administration (TSA) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
2. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
3. The FBI administered Terrorist Screening Center (TSC)

Under the "Secure Flight" programme, which has replaced the controversial CAPPS II programme, all passengers will be screened through the "Terrorist Screening Database" (TSDB), described as the "consolidated terrorist screening database". When the new scheme is up and running the TSA will screen domestic flight passengers and the CBP will screen international passengers against the names held on the TSDB.


From the early 1990s the screening of passengers consisted of airlines checking names against a "No Fly" list of people considered a “known threat to civil aviation” - this list had less than 20 individuals on 11 September 2001(it was complied by the FBI and sent to US air carriers). In 1996 a computer-assisted pre-screening system, CAPS, was created which selected passengers for more "intensive luggage searches". After 11 September 2001 CAPPS extended to selected searches of persons as well as luggage.

Within the USA, the report says:

"The CAPPS system is largely invisible to the public, and the federal government does not control or collect data utilised by CAPPS, as the system itself resides on airline reservations systems (for example, Sabre and Amadeus)."

Then in 2004 the TSA said it was going to "discontinue the development of the controversial CAPPS II system" - which was withdrawn after a highly critical report from the General Accountability Office (GAO) to Congress in February 2004 (see: GAO report on CAPPS II) - which said CAPPS failed on seven out of eight criteria concerning privacy and accuracy.

The report says that:

"In the case of CAPPS II, there was significant concern that proposals to use that system for other law enforcement purposes, such as comparing names against available criminal information databases to evaluate the risk posed by a passenger, would detract from the system’s principal objective of identifying known or suspected terrorists that attempt to infiltrate the aviation system."

The "Secure Flight" programme is intended to:

"focus its limited screening resources on individuals and their baggage who are perceived to pose an elevated or unknown risk to commercial aviation, while reducing the number of passengers screened and wait times at passenger screening checkpoints."

However, Secure Flight is only to be used to screen domestic flights, with the CBP screening people against the "Terrorist Screening Database" for international flights:

"Air passengers on international flights are screened against the wider set of U.S. government terrorist watch lists through CBP’s Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS), which is part of the Interborder Agency Inspection System (IBIS)."

The report says that the people on the "No Fly" list (those refused boarding and handed over to law enforcement agencies) was less that 20 before 11 September 2001. However, the US Department of State maintained its own list, known as "TIPOFF", with over 120,000 names of suspected terrorists and criminals. The report says that:

"As of October 2004, the TSC had downloaded over 102,000 terrorist “lookout” records in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), as compared to the approximately 20,000 names on the “No Fly” and “Automatic Selectee” lists."


A number of points are striking about the context of this report:

1. CAPPS II was withdrawn because of a report from the General Accountability Office (GAO) which had the respect of the US Congress. There is no such external body accorded the same respect by the Council of the European Union or the European Commission - there are, of course, the excellent reports from the Article 29 Working Party on Data Protection but their views are routinely ignored by the institutions.

2. After much debate, and the withdrawal of CAPPS II, the US appears to have settled for checking passengers against terrorist watch-lists which are limited in size (albeit over 120,000 names, some of which may well be disputed by the individual) and not for other purposes, for example, crime in general - a position the EU would do well to take note of.

Source: CRS Report for Congress: Homeland Security: Air Passenger Prescreening and Counterterrorism, March 4, 2005 (pdf)

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