Privacy group seeks DOT passenger screening plans

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) hopes that a lawsuit (download PDF) it has filed will bring oversight to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) efforts to track both transportation workers and airline passengers using computers and biometric identification cards.

EPIC general counsel David Sobel said the suit, filed yesterday in federal court in Washington, asks the court to force the DOT to comply with expedited Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that EPIC filed with the department early last month. Sobel said he expects the department to put up a fight.

"We will end up in a fight over what of this information can be made public. We welcome that fight because at least it won't be the unilateral decision of the agency; it will be up to a federal judge," Sobel said.

A DOT spokesman said the department will respond to the EPIC suit but didn't have a response ready at deadline.

Sobel said that since Sept. 11, there has been too much secrecy and not enough oversight by the authorities and the public. At the heart of the suit are three newspaper articles that were published in January and early February in the Washington Times and Washington Post.

EPIC says that in January, the Times published articles outlining DOT plans to have transportation workers carry biometric ID cards and to set up an ID card system for airline passengers. EPIC also cited a Post article in early February in which DOT sources said the department planned to set up a computer network for screening passengers. The network was to be created by linking government and private computer systems and databases.

"Where the basis of the request comes from is that the government itself has revealed nothing about these initiatives," Sobel said. "The objective here is to move beyond unnamed DOT sources to really make public on an official basis some of the details."

To get the details on the proposals in a timely fashion, EPIC has asked for the FOIA request to be expedited. This means that the DOT must either turn over the documents or refuse in a timely fashion. Sobel said he wants the request expedited out of concern that the DOT will release the documents in a couple of years, which would be too late to have an impact on the policies now being created.

Sobel said he also wants to know about tracking procedures, created in the 1990s under a commission led by then-Vice President Al Gore, that were supposed to be in place Sept. 11.

The airline safety commission, formed after the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996, made a series of recommendations, including a passenger profiling system known as CAPS, or Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening. Although the CAPS system was evidently operating on Sept. 11, the government has yet to say what it did and if any of the hijackers triggered the CAPS thresholds, Sobel said.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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