Getting serious about CAPPS II


With the coming end of the war in Iraq, attention will return to the war on terrorism here at home. One of the most controversial facets is the new airline security passenger database, known as CAPPS II. It is being tested right now. Is it an invasion of our privacy?

We need to get out of the technological Dark Ages and get serious about protecting ourselves from those who would do us harm. The CAPPS II “airline prescreening” is the beginning of an integrated national database.

To the degree that the CAPPS II program is a forerunner of a database that will permeate American society, airline passengers should not alone bear the financial brunt of its development and integration.

None of the CAPPS II information is new – the information is collected and used every day in business and government work. CAPPS II is the same screening everyone with a credit card, a new car loan or a mortgage has gone through, combined with the once-over someone purchasing a handgun would have to endure, and the routine checks police make when someone is stopped for a traffic violation.

The “new” part is the combination of government and commercial databases – an international law enforcement tool that the U.S.A. has never seen.

In retrospect, the “privacy” god, not Allah, is the one that ultimately permitted the events of 9/11. Reports abounded about police having stopped terrorists for traffic violations with no idea that they were wanted for immigration violations or on a terrorist “watch list.”

After 9/11 millions asked why the nation did not have some sort of national database that could help track terrorists moving within the country. And every law-abiding citizen has, at times, wondered how criminals, dead-beat dads and visa violators can move around the country and never be found.

We have sacrificed law enforcement on the altar of privacy. American lawmakers have concluded that it is better to insure privacy than to insure compliance with the law.

Basically, the government has no centralized way to keep track of anyone. The government knows plenty about law-abiding citizens, down to how much interest they made on a savings account, but it has no central database for criminals and lawbreakers.

The INS still has no practical way of tracking down visitors who have overstayed their visas and getting them out of the country. Even the Social Security Administration admits there are millions of false accounts with no effective way to track their misuse.

State governments are worse at sharing information. Folks can still, in this day and age of ubiquitous computers, get driver licenses in different states, register in parallel welfare systems, marry repeatedly and vote in multiple municipalities.

Even when voting (perhaps the most sacred and important act in a democracy) the government has determined that asking voters for positive identification is a violation of privacy. When you need positive identification to cash a $10 check but none to vote, something is amiss.

Only when it comes to collecting taxes does the government allow detailed aggregation of personal data. That’s why Americans fear the IRS. Few Americans pay their taxes altruistically. They are coerced.

Terrorists aside, with no IRS-type national database, criminals and scofflaws, dead-beat dads and sex offenders, and illegal immigrants and drunk drivers can break law after law with impunity and only a slim chance of ever being caught and convicted.

Government agencies, created to protect us and manage the complex laws promulgated in Washington and state capitals, have never developed a national system to share information about those whom they are charged with tracking.

Eventually, the CAPPS II database will be used not only for airline security where it is currently being tested. It eventually will be in use across the country and accessible by local and state police, FBI, IRS, INS and scores of other government officials.

Philosophically, we all want privacy. In reality, we all are more than willing to give privacy up for convenience.

Americans revel in the ease that they can get credit and purchase homes – all made possible by massive databases. Americans love frequent flyer programs – all made possible by sophisticated computers that track their travels. Americans love the convenience of ATMs that allow them to withdraw cash anywhere in the world – all made possible by international database sharing. Americans love the Internet where every click-through is tracked.

The national databases are already there. The real questions are: Who will pay for them and do we use them strictly for commerce or for civil protection as well.