Airline Passenger Profiling for Profit
I have previously written and spoken about the privacy threats that come from the confluence of government and corporate interests. It’s not the deliberate police-state privacy invasions from governments that worry me, but the normal-business privacy invasions by corporations—and how corporate privacy invasions pave the way for government privacy invasions and vice versa.
The U.S. government’s airline passenger profiling system was called Secure Flight, and I’ve written about it extensively. At one point, the system was going to perform automatic background checks on all passengers based on both government and commercial databases—credit card databases, phone records, whatever—and assign everyone a “risk score” based on the data. Those with a higher risk score would be searched more thoroughly than those with a lower risk score. It’s a complete waste of time, and a huge invasion of privacy, and the last time I paid attention it had been scrapped.
But the very same system that is useless at picking terrorists out of passenger lists is probably very good at identifying consumers. So what the government rightly decided not to do, the start-up corporation Jetera is doing instead:
Jetera would start with an airline’s information on individual passengers on board a given flight, drawing the name, address, credit card number and loyalty club status from reservations data. Through a process, for which it seeks a patent, the company would match the passenger’s identification data with the mountains of information about him or her available at one of the mammoth credit bureaus, which maintain separately managed marketing as well as credit information. Jetera would tap into the marketing side, showing consumer demographics, purchases, interests, attitudes and the like.
Jetera’s data manipulation would shape the entertainment made available to each passenger during a flight. The passenger who subscribes to a do-it-yourself magazine might be offered a video on woodworking. Catalog purchase records would boost some offerings and downplay others. Sports fans, known through their subscriptions, credit card ticket-buying or booster club memberships, would get “The Natural” instead of “Pretty Woman.”
The article is dated August 21, 2006 and is subscriber-only. Most of it talks about the revenue potential of the model, the funding the company received, and the talks it has had with anonymous airlines. No airline has signed up for the service yet, which would not only include in-flight personalization but pre- and post-flight mailings and other personalized services. Privacy is dealt with at the end of the article:
Jetera sees two legal issues regarding privacy and resolves both in its favor. Nothing Jetera intends to do would violate federal law or airline privacy policies as expressed on their websites. In terms of customer perceptions, Jetera doesn’t intend to abuse anyone’s privacy and will have an “opt-out” opportunity at the point where passengers make inflight entertainment choices.
If an airline wants an opt-out feature at some other point in the process, Jetera will work to provide one, McChesney says. Privacy and customer service will be an issue for each airline, and Jetera will adapt specifically to each.
The U.S. government already collects data from the phone company, from hotels and rental-car companies, and from airlines. How long before it piggy backs onto this system?
The other side to this is in the news, too: commercial databases using government data:
Records once held only in paper form by law enforcement agencies, courts and corrections departments are now routinely digitized and sold in bulk to the private sector. Some commercial databases now contain more than 100 million criminal records. They are updated only fitfully, and expunged records now often turn up in criminal background checks ordered by employers and landlords.