Is your airline spying on you?

Yes, but not in the way you might think. British Airways' Googling passenger pix is nothing compared to the trove of highly personal data available in your Passenger Name Records.

I recently returned from a trip to Prague. On my return flight, Air France upgraded me to business class. Lord knows why; maybe they mistook me for someone important. But it was nice. Business class comes with all kinds of perks us coach-flying cheapskates don’t usually see – comfier seats, better food, friendlier service, and endless entertainment options. But there’s one thing that flying Biz Class may also soon bring:  a background check.

Last week British Airways announced that, in its endless quest to serve customers better (and outdo rival Virgin Air), it would soon be Googling its higher paying passengers, so that airline personnel could offer them more personalized service.

According to a story in the London Evening Standard, BA’s “Know Me” program ….

will use Google images to find pictures of passengers so that staff can approach them as they arrive at the terminal or plane…. BA staff will also search individual data held by the airline, including if a regular traveller has experienced problems on previous flights, such as delays, so that crew are primed to apologise.

Naturally, privacy advocates are none too pleased with this nosey attempt at better customer service.

There are a few problems with this scheme, the biggest one of which is pretty simple: How does BA know the person they just Googled is the person who bought that plane ticket? My name isn’t particularly common, but a Google Image search for it turns up all kinds of people who aren’t me: a college professor in Colorado, a neurosurgeon in South Dakota, a flooring salesman in Cincinnati, a championship livestock breeder in Ireland.

Which Dan Tynan is the right Dan Tynan? There is only one way to find out, and that is to correlate those searches with other information, such as my address, my profession, frequent flyer activity, etc., some of which they already have, the rest of which can probably be found on Facebook (assuming my profile is public). Basically they’d have to do a background check on me. Nothing illegal about any of that, but it does seem to be an awful lot of effort – and involve the gathering of a lot of irrelevant and possibly personal information – just for the opportunity to greet me by name or apologize for that annoying delay where I had to sit on the tarmac at La Guardia for two hours because of some stupid technical glitch.

Especially since a far easier thing to do would be to scan my picture ID – the one I have to present to get a boarding pass and go through airport security – and use that to identify me at the gate. Or simply apologize from the get go, since there is always some annoying delay somewhere the airline is responsible for.

Businesses certainly would be smart to get to know their best customers better, to a point. That point comes pretty quickly when you give your employees free rein to Google them and create a dossier, however. The potential for abuse is obvious.

But people who are really concerned about their privacy while flying would do better to pay more attention to Passenger Name Records, which can contain a trove of information about you and your habits – not merely where and when you’ve flown, but with whom, where you stayed, what you ate on the plane, what special services you requested, and so on. These records are maintained by airline reservation systems (like the one now owned by Google) and shared with the Department of Homeland Security.

So you’re traveling on business with your personal assistant yet you only booked one hotel room with a king-sized bed? Naughty naughty, Ms. Married Executive. You ordered the Kosher meal? Mazel tov. You asked for a wheelchair to be brought to the jetway? Your insurance carrier might be interested in hearing about that. You travel exclusively via First Class? Hello Mr. Moneybags, can I sell you a Rolex?

If you want to learn more about PNRs and the information they contain, the man to see is Edward Hasbrouck, author of the Practical Nomad blog. He’s been waging a legal war with the DHS and others for more than a decade about the information they gather about travelers and what happens to it. He also offers advice on how you can find out what your PNRs say about you.

Googling passengers? A silly idea, but not a huge privacy breach. The real privacy violations come from the stuff the airlines – and Uncle Sam – already know about you.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook. 

Now read this: 

Facebook's 'man in the middle' attack on our data

Making Facebook private won't protect you

Google’s personalized search results are way too personal

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