POETIC LICENCE: CAPPS II system will create a government blacklist of Americans
At a news conference in Washington on February 26, a government spokesman said that under the programme Americans will be labelled as a “green,” “yellow” or “red” security risk. The red code would be reserved for those on terrorist watch lists. Far less clear, however, is who would get a yellow code in the government’s files
The chilling vision of the future painted by George Orwell in his 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” with its “Big Brother Is Watching You” slogan seems to be well on its way to coming true not in some totalitarian country with a despotic regime but in George W Bush’s United States of America, which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has now reached the point where a total surveillance society has not only become a realistic possibility but a likelihood, unless the public fights back.
“From government watch lists to secret wiretaps, Americans are unknowingly becoming targets of government surveillance,” said Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. “It is dangerous for a democracy that government power goes unchecked and for this reason it is imperative that our government be made accountable.”
A recent ACLU report, “Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society”, cites two developments making the march toward an Orwellian society a quick journey: (1) the tremendous explosion in surveillance-enabling technologies, including databases, computers, cameras, sensors, wireless networks, implantable microchips, global positioning systems (GPS) and biometrics; and (2) the weakening of civil-liberty protections, as government and private surveillance increases and a giant infrastructure tying the technologies together is contemplated.
“Many people still do not grasp that Big Brother surveillance is no longer the stuff of books and movies,” said Barry Steinhardt, co-author of the ACLU report. “Given the capabilities of today’s technology, the only thing protecting us from a full-fledged surveillance society are the legal and political institutions we have inherited as Americans. Unfortunately, the September 11 attacks have led some to embrace the fallacy that weakening the Constitution will strengthen America.”
The latest illustration of this danger is a secretive new system for conducting background checks on all airline passengers called the “CAPPS II Data-Mining System”, which threatens to create a bureaucratic machine for destroying Americans’ privacy and a government blacklist that will harm innocent Americans, the ACLU warned on February 27.
The ACLU’s warning came in response to statements by officials of the US Transportation Security Agency that the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPS II) will be tested at several airports around the United States starting sometime in March.
“CAPPS II is based on the same concept as the Pentagon’s ‘Total Information Awareness’ programme, which proposed massive fishing expeditions through some of our most personally sensitive data,” said Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Programme. “We are all concerned about airline security,” he said, “but we must not let the unique needs of our airports give the government an opening to create the kind of Big Brother programme that Americans rejected so resoundingly in the Pentagon.”
At a news conference in Washington on February 26, a government spokesman said that under the programme Americans will be labelled as a “green,” “yellow” or “red” security risk. The red code would be reserved for those on terrorist watch lists. Far less clear, however, is who would get a yellow code in the government’s files; those passengers would be subject to extra-intensive security screening.
“This system threatens to create a permanent blacklisted underclass of Americans who cannot travel freely,” said Katie Corrigan, and ACLU legislative counsel. “Unfortunately, history suggests that the government will be capricious, unfair and politically biased in deciding who to stamp as suspect. Anyone could get caught up in this system, with no way to get out.”
According to a January Federal Register containing some details of the CAPPS II programme, a yellow code in a person’s file could be shared with other government agencies at the federal, state and local level, with intelligence agencies such as the CIA and with foreign governments and international agencies — all of which could use those designations for many purposes, including employment decisions and the granting of government benefits.
“Despite the potentially serious consequences of being accused by your own government of being a security risk, CAPPS II would not allow innocent Americans to see the information that such a designation was based on, would not permit them a meaningful way to appeal, and would not reveal the criteria on which such judgments were based so they could avoid suspicion in the future,” Corrigan said. “In fact, individuals would not even have the right to confirm how they have been labelled.”
The CAPPS programme would collect information about individuals including “financial and transactional data” which could include credit card and other consumer-purchase data, housing information, communications records, health records and many other sources of information about individuals. It would also make use of public source information such as law enforcement and legal records.
“Once the infrastructure for a system of government files and security ratings on American citizens is built, it won’t be limited to air transportation for very long,” said Steinhardt. “Nothing like this has ever been done in this country,” he said.
Steinhardt cited as an example of the kind of thing that can happen the FBI’s “Project Lookout,” in which the agency gave corporations a list of hundreds of names of people it sought in connection with 9/11. The list, which was riddled with inaccuracies and contained the names of many people the FBI simply wanted to talk to, was widely circulated and took on a life of its own. No one knows how many innocent people have been denied jobs or suffered other harm because of the list.
“CAPPS II threatens our liberty, but its security benefits are far from clear,” said Steinhardt. “It will leave security scanners at sea in an ocean of private data.” Some of that data will be fraudulent, and much of it just plain wrong.
Like Total Information Awareness, CAPPS II is apparently based on the belief that you can find a needle in a haystack by adding more hay to the stack.