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.


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.

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