Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 9, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THE FRIENDLY SKIES....Via TalkLeft, which has some comments of its own, the Washington Post reports that the CAPPS II airline screening program is ready for testing.

Basically, CAPPS II (a successor to the current airline screening program) uses commercial databases, criminal records, intelligence information, and so forth to determine if a passenger is a security risk. Although on its face this approach may sound reasonable, check this out:

Passengers will be assigned a color code -- green, yellow or red -- based in part on their city of departure, destination, traveling companions and date of ticket purchase.

Most people will be coded green and sail through. But up to 8 percent of passengers who board the nation's 26,000 daily flights will be coded "yellow" and will undergo additional screening at the checkpoint, according to people familiar with the program. An estimated 1 to 2 percent will be labeled "red" and will be prohibited from boarding. These passengers also will face police questioning and may be arrested.

I don't know what the right base number to use is, but if you figure there are 200 million adults in America that means that TSA is expecting 2-4 million people to be completely barred from air travel.

Can that really be right? That's a helluva lot of people American citizens, presumably who are no longer allowed to fly. Why so many? A TSA spokesman says that in addition to flagging potential terrorists, "we should keep [passengers] from sitting next to wanted ax murderers."

I'm fine with that, actually, but color me skeptical that we have several million wanted murderers in the United States.

The worst part of this is that there doesn't appear to be any system in place to appeal the computer's decision. If you're on the list, you're on the list, and you won't find out until you're ready to board the plane. And if you're coded red, apparently it doesn't matter even if they do a body cavity search and fail to find anything that could pose a danger to the plane. You're grounded regardless.

This doesn't add up. Using a computer-based system to warn of potentially dangerous fliers might make sense even if it is annoying, but frankly, I don't care if Osama bin Laden is sitting next to me as long as he's been checked out thoroughly enough to ensure that he can't hijack the plane. Freedom of movement is one of the touchpoints that distinguishes free societies from police states, and any system that flatly prohibits certain people from traveling just doesn't pass the smell test.

Kevin Drum 11:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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