US Census Data, Used in
CAPPS II Passenger Profiling
U.S. census information provided by millions
of Americans was used in a government study to profile airline
passengers as terrorist risks.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
also obtained for its study the private information of hundreds
of thousands of passengers flying Northwest Airlines, an action
NASA denied to The Washington Times in September.
The government documents describing the
study and its contents were obtained by the Electronic Privacy
Information Center under Freedom of Information Act requests and
posted on its Web site.
The NASA study highlights concerns among
civil-liberties advocates that the government is gathering private
information and even using its own data -- contrary to repeated
official assurances from the Census Bureau -- to develop a data-mining
system to prescreen all airline passengers.
It also comes in the wake of reports that
JetBlue Airways gave a military contractor computer data on 1
million of its customers.
Bill Scannell, president of the group
called the inclusion of census information "absolutely appalling."
"Information given by American citizens
for reasonable demographics information has been turned around
and used to spy on people. This sounds like East Berlin, circa
'74," said Mr. Scannell, a privacy advocate.
"There is a certain amount of fumbling
around going on," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American
Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "NASA
is supposed to be engaged in space exploration."
The NASA study used the airline records
of 439,381 passengers and concluded that researchers were able
to "mine data sets with millions of examples and many features"
to detect threats.
Data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau
came from respondents to the 1990 census and included "information
on both households and individuals," the NASA study said.
The NASA experiment used 5 million census
records from each of two data sets it created, "one that stores
household records and another that stores person records."
The Census Bureau's Web site says it protects
confidentiality "through disclosure-information techniques."
However, Mr. Steinhardt, who sits on the
Census Advisory Committee, said releasing information on households
and individuals is "a major breach of trust."
"The advisory board specifically asked
this question, whether they were providing data to any other government
agency, and the answer was 'no,'Ê" Mr. Steinhardt said. "We will
have to look carefully at what they provided NASA and why."
NASA abandoned the study and returned
the information to Northwest on Sept. 23 after it was revealed
that JetBlue Airways had disclosed its passenger information for
a Pentagon study.
An e-mail message from a NASA official
to the airline said funding for the program had been eliminated.
"My interpretation is that NASA management
decided that they did not want to continue working with passenger
data in order to avoid creating the appearance that we are violating
people's privacy," said Mark Schwabacher of NASA's Computational
Sciences Division and a co-author of the profiling study.
The Washington Times reported on Sept.
27 that NASA officials requested systemwide passenger data from
July, August and September 2001.
NASA initially said no "specific request"
was made of the airline, and an airline official said he did not
know whether the information was turned over and referred questions
back to NASA.
However, Thomas A. Edwards, chief of NASA's
Aviation Systems Division, said Northwest and NASA officials,
at a Dec. 10, 2001, meeting, "did discuss whether passenger information
would be of use in doing research. We didn't get to the point
of making a specific request. It was really just talking about
NASA's letter to Northwest indicated that
the records request was made Dec. 20, 2001.
The Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening
(CAPPS II) system under development by the Homeland Security Department
will use passenger records that include name, address, phone number
and date of birth. The information will be used to confirm the
passenger's identity and will be compared with criminal and terrorist
A color-coded threat assessment will be
assigned to each passenger: green for standard security, yellow
for additional screening and red to prevent the passenger from
boarding a plane.
Security officials estimate the error
rate at 4 percent to 8 percent, which Mr. Steinhardt said "means
4 [million] to 8 million Americans will mistakenly be labeled
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