etBlue found itself on Page 1 of The
New York Times last week, and, for once, the news wasn't good.
It broke its internal rules on protecting passenger privacy and
handed over 5 million PNRs to a defense contractor, which promptly
matched it with a third-party database and ended up with a lot of
sensitive information about individual travelers, including Social
Security numbers, income levels, length of home ownership, number
of kids and even how many vehicles the traveler owned.
JetBlue has apologized and swears it will never do it again,
though that hasn't stopped passengers from suing. Interestingly, it
bent over backwards to assure customers that the data was not given
to the government directly, an assertion that seems a tad
disingenuous given that it said it provided it to the contractor at
the request of the Department of Defense.
Citizens from both sides of the political spectrum find it
troubling that the government and third parties are gathering so
much information about our habits and living patterns. But even if
you were willing to forego your privacy in the name of national
defense, there are the nagging questions: What type of conclusions
will the data-gatherers draw? Will this help identify terrorists?
Will I fit in the "right" mold?
I obtained a copy of the presentation that the army contractor,
Torch Concepts of Huntsville, Ala., made using JetBlue data. Its
conclusions, like Frankenstein's monster, are simple-minded and
One reason JetBlue CEO David Neeleman must be having
data-provider's remorse is that his competitors also can review the
presentation and obtain a neat demographic profile of his
customers, everything from their income bracket to how far they
typically live from an airport. No real surprises, mind you -- even
Torch Concepts notes that JetBlue passengers are "tourist-like"
with travel patterns that are "unremarkable."
Among the "conclusions" is that "Known airline terrorists appear
readily distinguishable from the normal JetBlue passenger
patterns." The summing up also includes a description of the normal
JetBlue passenger pattern as either "young, middle-income home
owners with short length-of-residence" or "older, upper-income home
owners with longer length-of-residence."
The conclusions are followed by a "risk assessment potential"
that states "several data elements have been identified which best
distinguish normal JetBlue passengers from past terrorists" and
"these 'passenger stability indicators' include Social Security
number, length of residence, income and home ownership."
So, someone who doesn't fit the pattern, let's say a middle-aged
person whose Social Security number was issued in another state,
who's also a renter with a short length of residence -- let's say
me, for instance -- won't pass the "passenger stability indicator"
Now that's something for me to ponder next time I'm randomly
selected for a gate search.
I don't know what lifestyle data points Timothy McVeigh has in
common with Osama bin Laden. Maybe it's as simple as the distance
they live from an airport or the number of cars they own. I know I
don't want their kind going about their business. But, especially
after reading this report, I want the government -- and JetBlue --
to keep their noses out of mine.