As if Americans don't have enough colors to remember in the Homeland Security alert system, the federal government plans to bring color-coding to airport checkpoints.
Here's how it will work, assuming the plan makes it through initial tests: The 559 million-plus passengers who fly on commercial planes in the United States every year will be assigned a color - green, yellow, or red - based on their personal information, any criminal records, or other data. The nearly 50,000 airport security screeners will allow green-coded people to pass through easily, while the yellow ones will be pulled aside for additional checking (one estimate, 8 percent of passengers per year), and the red ones will not get to board and might even be arrested.
The system, called CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System), raises many civil- liberties concerns: Do Americans want their name, home address, home phone number, date of birth, and itinerary passed along to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) - which will compare that information with private databases that have already determined spending habits, for instance? How will passengers be able to correct mistakes in the databases - and who will be liable for those mistakes? (Passengers won't know their score, but presumably could figure out their color-coding just by the way they are screened.)
And what if a glitch prohibits an otherwise "green" passenger from flying, or allows a red-coded passenger to get on the plane? And how will the system work if airports opt out from having federal screeners at all, which they can do as early as November 2004?
Clearly, the TSA owes the flying public some answers.