Protecting privacy

July 18, 2004

CAPPS II WILL be delayed and significantly revised, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration announced last week, and that is a notable victory for the rights of Americans to keep their private lives free from sweeping surveillance by government computers every time they get on an airplane.

But the battle over government use of invasive data-mining programs to gather reams of information about Americans continues, and much greater vigilance to protect Americans' privacy is still needed.

Under the once-heralded Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, fliers would have been forced to provide airlines with additional personal information. These data then would be checked against commercial and government databases not only to verify passengers' identities but also to secretly profile their threat levels -- potentially triggering further scrutiny.

CAPPS II was a deeply flawed idea -- not only because of its intrusiveness but because, as security experts have pointed out, it likely wouldn't have worked well. Given that many private databases are rife with inaccuracies, this level of screening probably would have led to the distractions of too many false positives, while offering only another false layer of airline security.

But the demise of CAPPS II should be celebrated cautiously.

Many more government data-mining programs -- which analyze massive volumes of public and private information to uncover hidden patterns and relationships -- are now at work. In May, the Government Accountability Office reported that 52 federal agencies have 131 data-mining efforts under way and another 68 planned. Some of these programs are aimed at detecting fraud and waste, improving agency services and analyzing research, but many others are dedicated to pinpointing criminal or terrorist activities.

Together, the CAPPS II fiasco and the GAO report -- not to mention the Defense Department's now stymied Total Information Awareness program -- underscore the threats to individual privacy posed by the rapidly increasing collection of data about our daily movements and transactions, the government's growing access to this private-sector data, and its use of sophisticated statistical techniques to plumb this material for investigatory purposes.

The problem here is that government data-mining -- particularly of commercial databases -- is flourishing in a legal environment providing insufficient privacy protection. There have been recent congressional calls for much-needed strengthening of the roles of federal privacy officers, but in the end, new legal protections will be necessary.

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