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WASHINGTON (AP) - The Homeland Security Department will begin testing a program to classify all airline passengers according to their security risk.
Privacy advocates have criticized the passenger screening effort, fearing it could lead to unconstitutional invasions of privacy and database mix-ups that could brand innocent people as potential terrorists.
Nuala O'Connor Kelly, Homeland Security's chief privacy officer, said the program has been reworked so less personal information will be checked. And people will be able to write or call to find out what's in the database about them, Kelly said. That was not the case under the original plan.
The program will be tested for several months at a secure government location. No date for implementation has been announced.
The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System was ordered by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It originally was conceived as a nationwide computer system that would compare passenger names with those on government watch lists and check such things as a traveler's credit report and consumer transactions.
Amid outcries from privacy advocates, the government reworked the plan to eliminate some of the information-gathering. For example, the test program won't use credit histories and specifically rules out medical information, Kelly said.
Privacy advocates remain leery, particularly because the government says the database could be used for other purposes. For example, information obtained about airline passengers could be used to arrest criminals, said David Sobel, spokesman for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"It's certainly an improvement in some ways, but opening the door to uses beyond aviation security certainly raises some serious concerns," Sobel said.
Under the program, an airline passenger would be required to provide name, birthday, address and phone number. That information would then be checked against the government database and, through a private company, publicly available commercial databases to determine a security threat level.
Congress recently expressed skepticism about whether the program will actually work and whether citizens' privacy would be adequately protected. House and Senate negotiators last week agreed to require the Homeland Security Department to first demonstrate the program meets requirements of due process, accuracy and privacy before it can be launched.
Separately, the Bush administration plans to reduce funding for another aviation security program - air marshals - was pilloried by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Democratic senators on Wednesday denounced the plan as "crazy" and "mindboggling" in light of a new warning that al-Qaida may try more suicide hijackings.
That warning prompted an order from the Transportation Security Administration directing U.S. airlines to immediately begin more intensive screening of travelers flying out of a foreign airport into the United States, then connecting to another foreign destination.
As for the marshals program, a key Republican said he was adamantly opposed to any effort to shift money away from it.
"It is foolish to even consider cutting back the number of air marshals on commercial flights," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles the Homeland Security Department's budget.
The Transportation Security Administration asked Congress last Friday for permission to cut $104 million, or about 20 percent, of the funding for the air marshals program to help offset the agency's $900 million budget deficit.
The next day, Homeland Security, the TSA's parent agency, sent an advisory to airlines and law enforcement agencies warning that al-Qaida may try more suicide hijackings.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other lawmakers also were upset by reports that air marshals had received a directive saying they would no longer be allowed to fly missions requiring overnight stays to save money on hotel bills. Such a move would reduce the number of cross-country and international flights with marshals on board.
Asa Hutchison, undersecretary for border and transportation security, sent a memo on Wednesday authorizing other federal law enforcement agencies to augment the air marshals.
Still, Democrats accused the administration of scrimping on resources needed to defend Americans against terrorists.
"They don't have enough money to do the job for homeland security," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "This sorry episode won't be the last. Every time there's a problem in one place they pull money out of another."