If it’s called Secure Flight, why do I feel so insecure?

Thanks for the birthday card, Southwest Airlines.

The computer-generated missive, complete with signatures of the airline’s executives, landed in my mailbox just before the big day. At first I was flattered by the thoughtful gesture. But then I was troubled.

How did they know my birthday?

And then it occurred to me: Airlines are now requiring passengers to provide their full name as it appears on a government-issued I.D., their date of birth and their gender as part of the Transportation Security Administration’s new Secure Flight initiative.

You probably know Secure Flight as the pesky requirement that the name on your passport or driver’s license be an exact match with the name on your airline ticket. But the program is much more than that. With the extra passenger data, the agency promises to improve the travel experience for all airline passengers, particularly those who have been misidentified as terrorists in the past.

With Secure Flight now operational domestically and expected to be in place for international flights by the end of the year, I think it’s worth asking how those data are being employed. Specifically, can an airline use my personal information, such as my date of birth, to send me a card – or a promotional offer?

Southwest says it doesn’t use Secure Flight data for promotional purposes and complies with all rules regarding the information. And in fact, a review of my records showed that I’d given Southwest my date of birth when I updated my frequent-flier account information several months earlier.

I asked the TSA about the personal information used for the program, and a representative pointed me to a statement on the agency’s Web site assuring air travelers that the data are collected, used, distributed, stored and disposed of according to stringent guidelines and all applicable privacy laws and regulations.

The actual requirement can be found in a document called the System of Records Notice. It specifies what information can be gathered (your name, birth date and gender), whom it can be shared with (the TSA and various law enforcement agencies, as appropriate) and when it must be disposed of (a week after your flight, for most records).

Seems pretty reasonable. And my attitude toward privacy appears to be common among the jet set.

“I honestly don’t mind providing an airline with data,” said Lawrence Sherman, an executive with an educational company in Fort Washington, Pa. “I don’t want the info to be used for other purposes.”

But airlines see an opportunity to “maximize the marketing and other commercial value of this government-coerced informational windfall,”asserted Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to the Identity Project, a privacy advocacy organization for travelers. And drawing a fine line between data collected for Secure Flight and information gathered for other purposes, such as frequent-flier program account information, may allow them to do that.

“It renders meaningless any restrictions on which of this data is retained, or for how long, by the government itself,” Hasbrouck added.

I checked with several federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation and the Federal Trade Commission, that might have jurisdiction over data included in airline reservations.

The Transportation Department allows air carriers to articulate their own data privacy policies in their contract of carriage, which is the legal agreement with passengers. It can fine the airlines for violating those self-imposed rules. A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission told me his agency has no authority over airlines.

Larry Ponemon, whose Traverse City, Mich., institute conducts independent research on privacy, data protection and information security policy, said the airlines are already collecting the information the government is requesting. Secure Flight merely requires that such information “be given to TSA for the purpose of screening passenger manifests against terror watch lists,” he said.

Could it be that the information we give airlines doesn’t belong to anyone or, worse, isn’t regulated by anyone?

No, said Thom VanHorn, a vice president for Application Security, a New York database security firm. Even if you discount the TSA regulations, airlines must still follow federal compliance mandates under the Federal Information Security Management Act, the Privacy Act and other statues. These are broad regulations that don’t specifically apply to airlines, he said, but they would prohibit an airline from, say, releasing the credit card information or Social Security numbers of its customers to a third party.

The TSA also allows air travelers to refuse to provide the information, VanHorn said. “However, they may be subject to additional screening or denied boarding,” he said.

When I contacted Southwest to say thank you for my birthday card and to find out where the airline had gotten my information, spokesman Chris Mainz said that indeed, the data came from my Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program profile and had “nothing to do with Secure Flight.”

When I searched my e-mail files, I found that Southwest had in fact required me to update my Rapid Rewards information, adding my birth date and other data, and cited the need to satisfy the TSA for Secure Flight when it did. So technically, I gave the data to Southwest, and it passed the information to the TSA.

“We protect [Secure Flight] information the same as we would protect credit card information and only use it for the information that is required by the TSA,” Mainz said.

I find the airline’s explanation both reassuring and problematic. I’d like to see this issue addressed in airline privacy policies, to reassure customers that the information isn’t being passed along to a third party.

But in a world where privacy is fast becoming obsolete, does anyone really care?

(Photo: M Agh/Flickr Creative Commons)

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

This site is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

This site is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

This site is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

This site is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

This site is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

This site is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

This site is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

This site is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

This site is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

This site is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.