2004 01 18 NYT Airline Gave Government Information On Passengers – New York Times
Airline Gave Government Information On Passengers
A second airline has acknowledged releasing information on its passengers for an experiment to determine if the government could ”mine” the data to spot terrorists.
The carrier, Northwest Airlines, confirmed that it gave NASA data on passengers who flew during several months in 2001. The airline’s action came to light through Freedom of Information Act requests made to the Transportation Security Administration and NASA by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based privacy-rights group. It was reported on the Web site of The Washington Post on Saturday.
The information Northwest turned over to the government appears to involve more than 10 million passengers, said David L. Sobel, the general counsel for the privacy group.
”It’s now the second major privacy violation by a U.S. airline in response to government requests for information,” Mr. Sobel said. ”There has been resistance on the part of the airlines to openly support these efforts in recognition of passenger concerns, so it is troubling to see this information secretly shared with the government.”
Mr. Sobel said his group planned to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation on Tuesday requesting an investigation into the airline’s actions. It also plans to file a lawsuit against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to seek more information about the agency’s secret project.
In September 2003, a smaller carrier, JetBlue, said it had given information on passengers to a company that works under contract for the Defense Department.
The contractor matched the data to other available information to determine the passengers’ Social Security numbers and other information. The disclosure was heavily criticized by privacy advocates, and JetBlue later apologized to its customers.
At the time of JetBlue’s apology, Northwest officials publicly stated that their airline, the nation’s fourth-largest, would not divulge information on its passengers.
”We do not provide that type of information to anyone,” Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for Northwest, told The New York Times in a story published on Sept. 23.
On Saturday night, Mr. Ebenhoch said he had no comment about whether Northwest had portrayed itself accurately in September.
Asked what period was covered by the passenger records that Northwest gave NASA, Mr. Ebenhoch said he would not say because that might violate Northwest’s security precautions.
Researchers at NASA’s Ames Laboratory had hoped to use data to find unusual travel patterns as clues to terrorists’ identities.
A spokesman for the laboratory, David R. Morse, said that researchers at the facility, at Moffett Field near San Jose, Calif., ”only ever looked at one days’ worth of data.”
”They were looking to see if they could develop algorithms that were useful for security,” Mr. Morse said. ”They decided it wasn’t a technology that was going to be useful.”
In the wake of the Jet Blue controversy, government officials became concerned about their use of passenger data.
In an e-mail message sent on Sept. 23, in which the government said it was returning the data to the airline, a NASA official told a Northwest executive that ”our data mining for aviation security project” had not received financing for fiscal year 2003.
”My interpretation is that NASA management decided that they did not want to continue working with passenger data in order to avoid creating the appearance that we are violating people’s privacy,” the NASA official wrote. In the e-mail message, the official also mentioned ”the problems that JetBlue is now having after providing passenger data for a project similar to ours.”
Since the Jet Blue controversy, the airlines and the government have been arguing over a related problem, a program that the government is trying to establish called Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening, or Capps 2, which is supposed to identify about 5 percent of passengers that require closer scrutiny.