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Sat, Jan 24, 2004

Airline Industry To Work On Privacy Issues

Air Transport Association Flooded With Calls, E-Mails

Airline passengers worried about privacy in an age where airlines and the government are sharing their personal information have been calling the Air Transport Association, as the government continues to move toward using information like credit reports to weed out potential hijackers.

And there doesn't appear to be an easy answer on the horizon.

ATA members met with Nuala O'Connor Kelly Friday. She's the chief privacy officer at the Homeland Security Department. But the meeting apparently didn't yield much in the way of solutions to the thorny issue of balancing privacy with protection.

"The only thing that came out of this meeting was a very useful discussion with Nuala O'Connor Kelly and a recognition that we need to do some more work," said ATA spokesman Doug Wills.

At the heart of the issue is the government's CAPPS II program. It's designed to gather a wide range of information from government and private sources, in hopes of spotting a terrorist before he commits a terror act. Included in the vast array of database information that is supposed to fall under CAPPS II is credit reports (often notoriously inaccurate), criminal checks, and government intelligence reports.

Privacy advocates have been in an uproar over CAPPS II was announced last year. In fact, one such advocate, Bill Scannell, sent more than 100,000 emails to people on his contact list, notifying them of the DHS-ATA meeting and urging them to voice their concerns.

"It's important they feel what's at stake here," said Scannell, who added that the airlines would likely lose business from customers concerned about their privacy. "I think people should consider investing in video conferencing companies if CAPPS II goes through."

Government officials have promised that they won't actually be able to see the contents of personal information gathered on air passengers. Instead, the software would generate a "threat assessment level," a sort of flag that would single out a particular passenger for additional scrutiny.

Public outcry has further damaged the airline industry, still suffering the aftershocks of the 9/11 attacks, the SARS outbreak and a worldwide economic slump. Delta Airlines participated in a CAPPS II pilot program last year, but pulled out when threatened with a boycott.

Northwest Airlines and JetBlue now face class-action lawsuits over their participation. Northwest, stung by recent revelations that it sent as many as 10 million passenger records to NASA as part of a test program -- in spite of the airline's denials -- now says it will participate again if required by law to do so. But airline executives say they'll recommend  "a data protection protocol addressing privacy concerns should be developed before any further aviation security research with passenger data is conducted."



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