MEDIA WATCH: Coverage focuses on criticism - not creation - of CAPPS II

In late February, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) awarded Lockheed Martin a $12.8 million contract to develop a new database that will better screen passengers to determine potential threats to aviation security, a high-profile and sensitive topic in the wake of September 11. Delta Airlines has agreed to test the database, called Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), over the next few months before the system goes live for the entire airline industry in the summer of 2004.

In late February, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) awarded Lockheed Martin a $12.8 million contract to develop a new database that will better screen passengers to determine potential threats to aviation security, a high-profile and sensitive topic in the wake of September 11. Delta Airlines has agreed to test the database, called Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), over the next few months before the system goes live for the entire airline industry in the summer of 2004.

Ever since the contract was announced, the program has met with a blitz of criticism from civil liberties groups over privacy concerns. The New York Times (March 11) reported that the TSA was "clearly surprised" by the criticism stemming from "what its staff thought was a fairly routine news release." Analyzing a sample of news coverage about CAPPS II since its unveiling, Media Watch found that better than four out of five reports that discussed CAPPS II also addressed the criticism that it is receiving about privacy issues. Critics viewed CAPPS as an Orwellian creation - a secret collection of information that will brand individuals with a thumbs up or thumbs down based upon criteria that aren't available to the public. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (March 29) noted, "Early on, critics complained that details of CAPPS II were being kept secret. It got a bad reputation, often being called a 'no-fly list.'" In particular, the TSA's intended use of people's credit ratings rubbed many people the wrong way. In Minneapolis, the Star-Tribune (March 13) quoted a critic as saying that CAPPS II is "an absolute travesty of the Bill of Rights. What information could they possibly glean from a credit report that would indicate whether or not I am a terrorist?" In addition to the privacy concerns, critics have attacked CAPPS II on the grounds that it may not be accurate in assigning its risk categorization, and that it might not even make the flying public more secure. However, The Washington Post (March 11) recognized that "both Delta and the TSA have sought to correct travelers' misperceptions about the system." Admiral James Loy, administrator for the TSA, has been active in placing op-eds and letters to the editor, going over the steps that the TSA is taking to balance security and privacy issues while making air travel safer. The editorial board of the Boston Herald (March 9) has also thrown its support behind CAPPS II, advocating it as a "tool against terror." Interestingly, it has been the TSA and Delta that have caught the brunt of criticism, while Lockheed-Martin appears to have escaped unscathed. A number of articles reported on privacy activists' boycott of Delta for agreeing to a trial of the CAPPS II system. The Boston Herald (March 13) reported that a quarter-million people had logged on to www.boycottdelta.org, while The New York Times (March 11) quoted a similar activist site's webmaster as saying that Delta is "getting hammered now because they are collaborating in an incredible violation of people's privacy." While the TSA and Delta have been put in the spotlight for CAPPS II, other airlines will need to be monitoring this topic as well, once the database system comes closer to going online nationwide. It remains to be seen whether or not they'll be prepared to address the topic and get ahead of the issue, rather than be put on the defensive.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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