Database firm rejects TSA's pre-screening approach

The CEO of a leading commercial database company said Monday that his company has opted out of the government's proposed method of screening airline passengers because the system uses a probability-based system instead of evaluating known risks.

At a press conference to promote two new books he wrote, ChoicePoint CEO Derek Smith addressed what he views as the weaknesses of the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), a project of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"ChoicePoint opted out of CAPPS II," Smith said. "We have not been involved in CAPPS II" because of disagreements with the government. "We respect the government's ability to do it a different way."

Smith said CAPPS II is too much like the Terrorism Information Awareness program once proposed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to mine commercial data because CAPPS II attempts to ferret out data about 280 million individual Americans.

Smith termed that approach "probabilistic theory" and said law enforcement and private businesses seeking to verify individuals' identities should instead take advantage of "link analysis." The latter approach concentrates first on suspected terrorists and seeks information about anyone who might be connected to them.

"Today, we are looking for small groups of people, or needles in a haystack," he said. "The last thing you want to do is put more hay on the haystacks."

He also proposed a new version of the program that he and CourtTV founder Steven Brill are proposing. Called the Verified Identity Pass, the program would voluntarily "enable people to get themselves into stadiums, office buildings or other places" without the hassle of an extensive security check.

ChoicePoint is one of a handful of large database aggregators, some of which have seized upon the environment since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to pitch their wares to government agencies. ChoicePoint provides ID-verification services to state police and the FBI, Smith said.

Acxiom has worked with TSA on CAPPS II. A Florida company called Seisint also has developed a system called Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX) that several states, including Florida, purchased as a means of mining data for local police.

Heavy criticism of both CAPPS II and MATRIX by privacy advocates may put ChoicePoint in a position to urge data reforms, some industry observers said. With his new books, Risk Revolution and A Survival Guide in the Information Age, Smith said he wants advocates of privacy and homeland security to coalesce around proposals guided by rational risk assessments instead of emotionalism.

"We need a new kind of privacy discussion that begins with the proposition that we can both maintain our civil liberties and maintain our civil defense," Smith said. While defending the need for privacy, he harshly criticized the role of anonymity in the contemporary world.

"I do not believe you have a right to be anonymous in a free society, or to mask, deny, change or hide our identity when we seek rights or privileges in our society," he said.

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