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Uncle Sam's Club

Back when I was in the Coast Guard, we had to submit to random drug screenings. One day I discovered, inadvertently, that only 25% of samples were actually sent off for analysis; it was just too expensive to do them all. Add in a high error rate to start with, stir in numerous — and often quite creative — methods of fooling the system, then mix in the near uniform resentment of those being tested and what was left was an intrusive, unreliable and wildly unpopular program that served mostly to remind us we were all suspects.

Will a new airline security measure be a similar illusion

In September, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it is pushing forward with implementation of CAPPS II, or Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System, the next generation of an air passenger screening system already in place. While the details are sketchy, what is known is that CAPPS II will wash passenger information through information databases, both commercial and government and assign a numerical code for identity verification and a color coded threat assessment for each passenger.

Of course, how well this all works will depend largely not just on how the system crunches data, but what data it crunches. And as the old saying goes, garbage in, garbage out…well there is plenty of garbage out there.

This summer, the Sam#39;s Club cancelled my Mother#39;s membership. It#39;s not that she doesn#39;t pay her bills; it#39;s just that, for who knows how long, they had been sent to my old apartment on Dexter Street in Denver. Also this summer, while trying to rent a video without his membership card, my Father was put on the suspect list at his local Blockbuster Video (just kidding, I don#39;t think they have that yet) because while their database shows him also living at my old Denver apartment, he claims to have lived at the same address in Nebraska for the last 20 years (which he has, with my Mom).

For almost seven years now, my folks have been living an information age comedy of errors, which no amount of letter writing or phone calls has been able to fix.

We think, but can#39;t be sure, that it started with a purchase from a catalogue; with my mom#39;s credit card and shipped to my apartment. Within weeks, junk mail for my mom started arriving at my door, catalogues, special offers, etc., then weeks later, for my father also. After that came the credit card offers, in both of their names. At first it was kind of funny, and then it got weird as commercial databases started moving the rest of my family in with me. A pre-approved credit card for my brother in California, then Cheese of the Month Club correspondence for another brother in Seattle (yes, he is a member).

Then it got bizarre. My dad#39;s airline miles statement, then correspondence from organizations they belong to and donate to.

Then I moved, but my parents stayed on Dexter Street. My dad took a hit on his credit reportnbsp;credit card bill, now way overdue, and then it my parent#39;s homeowners insurance, nearly cancelled since the premium went unpaid, also going to Dexter Street. When my father sent inquiries to the insurance company, with whom he had done business for 15 years, how his address had come to be changed, no one had any idea. And it is still going on today.

Nearly bengn in comparison, there are also people we have never heard of living with my parents at their actual address. Telemarketers busily call for Alan Krause, who they think is the president of mom#39;s company and there are now several medical groups and institutions whose databases know my father, Duane, as Dr. Barry Krause, whoever that is.

Of course, Blockbuster can#39;t keep you off an airplane, and Sam#39;s Club can#39;t put you on a no- fly list, but the TSA can, and they will be partially depending on what is a rather strikingly flawed and messy flow of private, commercial information in making those decisions.

Of course, government databases will also be used. And if that makes anyone feel better about the efficacy of the CAPPS II system, it shouldn#39;t.

Writing for National Review Online http://www.nationalreview.com/kopel/kopel020502.shtml Linda Gorman and Dave Kopel note that even a small state government database, Colorado#39;s Central Registry of Child Protection, is riddled with errors. A 2001 audit of the system found, among other things, that fifty thousand of 107,484 records were incomplete, that more than 1000 people acquitted of child abuse were illegally listed and that a comparison of 31 incident reports with their registry entries found some 44 data entry errors.

This isn#39;t to pick on the Registry, which Gorman and Kopel call relatively efficient, fair and respectful of privacy, but if a government database that covers one small section of the population of one state can#39;t be accurate or complete, how about the largest criminal database in the country

This last March, the U.S. Justice Department simply announced, in an administrative ruling, that the FBI would no longer have to comply with requirements of the 1974 Privacy Act concerning the accuracy of information at the National Crime Information Center http://www.epic.org/alert/EPIC_Alert_10.07.html a clearinghouse of national and international criminals, fugitives and suspects containing over 30 million records and a database almost certain to be used in a CAPPS II style system.

But maybe that#39;s the smart move. There may come a time, if and when CAPPS II is implemented, when congress starts asking uncomfortable questions about what color their constituents are being coded and why.

The Independence Institute

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.

MIKE KRAUSE is a Senior Fellow at the Institute.

NOTHING WRITTEN here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

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