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Intricate Screening Of Fliers In Works Database Raises Privacy Concerns
By Robert O'Harrow Jr. Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, February 1, 2002; Page A01
Federal aviation authorities and technology companies will soon begin testing a vast air security screening system designed to instantly pull together every passenger's travel history and living arrangements, plus a wealth of other personal and demographic information.
The government's plan is to establish a computer network linking every reservation system in the United States to private and government databases. The network would use data-mining and predictive software to profile passenger activity and intuit obscure clues about potential threats, even before the scheduled day of flight.
It might find, for instance, that one man used a debit card to buy tickets for four other men who sit in separate parts of the same plane -- four men who have shared addresses in the past. Or it might discern an array of unusual links and travel habits among passengers on different flights.
Those sorts of details -- along with many other far more subtle patterns identified by computer programs -- would contribute to a threat index or score for every passenger. Passengers with higher scores would be singled out for additional screening by authorities.
As described by developers, the system would be an unobtrusive network enabling authorities to target potential threats far more effectively while reducing lines at security checkpoints for most passengers. Critics say it would be one of the largest monitoring systems ever created by the government and a huge intrusion on privacy.
Although such a system would rely on existing software and technology, it could be years before it is fully in place, given that enormous amounts of data would need to be integrated and a structure would need to be established for monitoring passenger profiles.
At least one carrier, Delta Air Lines, has been working with several companies on a prototype. Northwest Airlines has acknowledged that it is talking with other airlines about a similar screening system. Federal authorities hope to test at least two prototypes in coming months or possibly sooner, according to government and industry sources familiar with the effort.
"This is not fantasy stuff," said Joseph Del Balzo, a former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and a security consultant working on one of the profiling projects. "This technology, based on transaction analysis, behavior analysis, gives us a pretty good idea of what's going on in a person's mind."
The screening plans reflect a growing faith among aviation and government leaders that information technology can solve some of the nation's most vexing security problems by rooting out and snaring people who intend to commit terrorist acts.
But a range of policy and technical questions still need to be answered before the system can become a reality. The Transportation Security Administration, for example, must decide on a set of standards so technology companies and airlines can begin building a system. They must also figure out how to pay for the system and its operation. Industry officials said they hope the system will cost, on average, much less than $2 per ticket.
Officials at the TSA declined to comment, saying they did not want to disclose any details that might undermine aviation security.
Government officials and companies also face questions about privacy. In interviews, more than a dozen people working on two parallel projects said they were taking pains to protect individual privacy. They intend to limit the personal information shared with airlines and security officials.
But developers face restrictions on how much information they can use. Industry officials have already discussed with lawmakers the possible need to roll back some privacy protections in the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Driver's Privacy Protection Act to enable them to use more of the credit and driver's-license data.
Civil liberties activists said they fear the system could be the beginnings of a surveillance infrastructure that will erode existing privacy protections. When told about the system, Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it would be "a massive complex system of surveillance."
"It really is a profound step for the government to be conducting background checks on a large percentage of Americans. We've never done that before," he said. "It's frightening."
Some critics also worry that law enforcement authorities will be tempted to use it for broader aims, such as snaring deadbeat parents or profiling for drug couriers.
"If you can profile for terrorists, you can profile for other things," said Richard M. Smith, an independent computer security and privacy specialist. "The computer technology is so cheap and getting so much cheaper, you just have to be careful: Turn up the volume a little bit, and we just use the air transportation system to catch everybody."
Airlines rely on a couple dozen variables to screen passengers, such as how they bought tickets, whether they're flying one-way and travel history, people familiar with the system said. The details of that system, known as Computer Assisted Passenger Screening, or CAPS, are closely guarded. But security specialists regard that system -- expanded after Sept. 11 -- as limited.
The systems under development would include a thousand or more minute details and computer-derived conclusions about a person's travel, daily activity over time and whether he or she has coordinated activity with other passengers, possibly on other flights, according to the groups developing the systems.
Two leading prototypes are being developed. One group is led by HNC Software, a risk-detection specialist that works for credit card issuers, telephone companies, insurers and others. HNC is working with several companies, including PROS Revenue Management, which has access to seating records of virtually every U.S. passenger, and Acxiom Corp., one of the world's largest data-marketing companies, which collects such information as land records, car ownership, projected income, magazine subscriptions and telephone numbers.
"We can quickly build a system that is much more effective than anything in place today," said Joseph Sirosh, executive director of advanced technology solutions at HNC Software. "There is a night-and-day difference."
A second group is being led by Accenture. It has worked for months on a prototype with a variety of companies, including Delta. Data giant Equifax, Sabre Inc. (which is responsible for about half of U.S. airline reservations), IBM and other companies have also been working on profiling efforts.
Both systems are designed to use travel information and other data to create models of "normal" activity. Then they will look for variations in individual behavior that might suggest risk. Both may eventually make use of some sort of biometric system that uses iris scans, fingerprints or other immutable characteristics.
Officials at both HNC and Accenture said they take care with the personal information their systems collect and parse. The HNC prototype, for instance, does not link a passenger's personal information to a passenger's threat index. Officials also pledged that there will be no racial profiling, in part because ethnicity often has no bearing on potential risk.
The HNC prototype uses software known as neural networks, which can "learn" subtle patterns and relationships by processing millions of records, to predict when a particular transaction is likely to be fraudulent. The company already uses neural networks software to accurately profile the activity of millions of credit card owners, telephone callers and people receiving insurance benefits to crack down on fraud.
The HNC prototype would allow authorities, based in control rooms, to examine potential threats across the aviation system. One computer screen, for instance, includes a "prioritized passenger list" with passengers on a particular flight ranked from the highest risk to the lowest. The same screen also includes a box called "passenger coordination" with the names of other travelers that the computer has somehow linked to a high-risk passenger. Other screens show an aggregate threat for planes, airports and the entire system.
The Accenture system also creates a threat index, using massive computing power and relational database software. It examines travel data to look for things such as routes involving odd destinations or flying patterns. To search for threads linking individuals, the system will sift huge amounts of travel records, real estate histories and "seven layers" of passenger associates, according to Accenture partner Brett Ogilvie.
For instance, it would note if an individual lived at the former address of someone considered high-risk. Theoretically, the system could be calibrated to watch for people with links to restaurants or other places thought to be favored by terrorist cells. It might also note phone calls and match individuals against government watch lists. A potential link to a threatening character or region could boost a passenger's score, he said.
A limited model report, generated by Accenture on one individual, looked like any number of publicly available dossiers provided by information services. It included all his addresses for the past two decades, the telephone numbers and former addresses of people who now occupy those residences, and the names, ages, addresses, telephone numbers and partial Social Security numbers of possible relatives. Some of the information was incomplete or, apparently, unrelated to the passenger.
The company said it would eventually like to have more data in the analysis, including embassy warnings, passport information, foreign watch lists. Eventually, with government approval, they would link the system to a national ID or some sort of biometric or both.
The index would send color-coded signals to airlines. Green would indicate no problem. Yellow would indicate the need for more questioning. Red means apprehend. Ogilvie said the company would try to offer the same sort of service to cruise ships and other facilities that want to bolster security.
"The data is there and the technology is there," Ogilvie said. "There's a lot of value. There's a lot of data."
Paul Werbos, a senior National Science Foundation official and a neural networks specialist, said such systems need to be used carefully. While there is no doubt that profiling can improve security, Werbos said, "we have to be very careful not to create punishments, disincentives, for being different from average."
-- (XP@notnow.thanx), February 01, 2002
I just won't do that. I had heard about a national license with all this biometric for truck drivers, and there have been propositions regarding "trusted traveller" id's, but this is tthe largest singular piece I have seen on this.hmpf.
-- Doreen (email@example.com), February 01, 2002.
Just great, now I can never come and visit you all. My passport has stamps from countries of GW's 'evil axis' as well a few from Taliban Afghanistan. Now when they get this system going they will find I was in Prague at the same time as Mohammed Atta, cripes! we might even have been on the same tram!
-- john hill (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 01, 2002.
"This technology, based on transaction analysis, behavior analysis, gives us a pretty good idea of what's going on in a person's mind."
Then they will soon find out that what is going on in MY mind is that I think they are a bunch of a-holes!
Is it just me, or does it seem that 1984 is DESTINED to come to pass? We've been creeping towards such a situation for at least forty years; we let our privacy rights slip away a little at a time, whereas we'd never allow all the changes I've seen over the last few decades come to pass if they were all implemented at once.
Who's behind all this creepy stuff, do you think? It's not just Evil George, Evil Dick and Evil John. It's been going on throughout several administrations, both Demorats and Republicrats. Is it the TLC? The WTO? or who?
So, what do we do about this, folks? Do we start sending money to the ACLU? March in the streets? (better wear a mask, or you'll be banned from flying, under this system) (also ships, buses, and trains, I suppose, and possibly public highways.)
This makes me very mad. And very sad, as well, because I suspect my fellow Americans will act like sheep, and accept the program in the interest of "security".
-- joj (email@example.com), February 01, 2002.
Oh great! I still get calls from collection agencies looking for the guy who had my phone number before I did, and I've had this number for almost 5 years now. He'd better not turn out to be some sort of terrorist or I'll be SOL.
-- Sherri C (CeltiaSkye@aol.com), February 01, 2002.
Sorry, Sherri, that's no excuse. Obviously, you should have been more discriminating in your choice of phone numbers!
-- joj (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 01, 2002.
Just as I suspected. A bunch of terrorists here. What- isn't your safety more important than anything else on the face of the planet??????
It's the NWO, and I ain't talkin' wrasslin, either. And the plans are diabolical in the root sense of the word. This is all to absurd. I don't think the ACLU is going to be much help, but there are a few anti biometric groups who are very versed in this stuff that I may be able to post links for if you are interested.
On a totally different subject, I had three emails from people whom I don't know calling me a commie, a socialist and a leftist. Wow. I thought it was funny in a very dark way. And last week I was called a Polly Anna here!!! sorry....just rambling;).
-- Doreen (email@example.com), February 01, 2002.
Wow, Doreen! Not only do you not know them but they certainly don't know you at all! Calling YOU a leftist and a commie? What!?!? They didn't have JOJ's email addie?
I still say anyone who thinks the gov. or secularists will do the right thing is a Pollyanna. Remember, Pollyanna was cute!
-- Laura (Ladybugwrangler@hotmail.com), February 01, 2002.
Don't fret folks, any such system would bring up so many possible matches (i.e cry "wolf") that the people at the airline check in or whatever will soon get tired of the whole business and still let us 'nice' folks get on board.
-- john hill (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 02, 2002.
It's good to see that you appreciated that article. Here is a link to another regarding biometric ID for children:
-- (XP@notnow.thanks), February 02, 2002.
And remember the old puter saying: Garbage in-- garbage out!
think about that one for that system!...scary!
Doreen its nice to see that you've reached such an elevated status!!
This guy says; to hell with flying ....If they had me on the floor with a knee on my neck pinning me down because I had a ball point pen or a paper clip in my pocket.......I know the ruckis I'd raise!...then the jack boots would cart me off........tain't worth it!
Doreen you are scheduled to get your inbedded chip on tuesday at 9am. now don't be late!
I better go take 2 asprins and some Tums................
-- Jim-mi (email@example.com), February 02, 2002.
I got a kick out of it...rabid Constitutionalist commie, that I am! ;)
Jim-mi---the chip may be implanted posthumously, thank you. There will be a brass and lead implant prior to the microchip...maybe a couple of the brass and lead.
There are only a few anti biometrics sites..sorry, but you will need to search for them....I think these are the addies, but it could be different. These are the names of the organizations:
If I get to spend any time messing I will post any other groups I can find.
Off for some ginger root tea!
-- Doreen (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 02, 2002.
Just to clear things up , it's now OK to be a commie. Infact it so acceptable the leaders of the United States decided to show their approval of the communist goverment by sacrificing thousands of American jobs and sending them to China.If our freedoms do dwindle away along with our economy, 10 years down the road Americans might actually envy the Chinese communist government.China economy has grown very well last year and the availability of jobs there just keeps on growing.
-- SM Steve (email@example.com), February 05, 2002.
I don't think that the exportaion of jobs to China indicates "it's ok to be a commie". I think it is saying "it's ok to be a capitalist dog, who is willing to make his fellow Americans suffer for his own profit"
-- joj (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 06, 2002.
Joe I need to get out of my cave more often.I thought it was part of U.S. leaders emergence into the enlightened Aquarian age (the love thy enemy program ).Now that I understand the true motives of the lost jobs .I'll have to look at the bright side of this and remember the words of a spirtual man or was it a politician who said" suffering is purification". I hope no-one miss understood my sarcasm I also am a casualty of the relocation of jobs to overseas.
-- SM Steve (email@example.com), February 06, 2002.
I think the spiritual man was saying that to his ten year old altar boy, as he entered him. Sad to say.
-- joj (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 07, 2002.