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.

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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.

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