- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Northwest Airlines should be investigated and fined for turning over its customers’ private data to the government for a study to link passengers and the risk of terrorism, a watchdog group said yesterday.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, and accused the airline of violating its own privacy policy.

The center accused Northwest of “engaging in an unfair and deceptive practice by disclosing consumer personal information to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” which tested a “data mining” program to pinpoint terrorist links.

EPIC says millions of passenger records were turned over and that airlines should be ordered to notify every passenger whose personal information was given to NASA and pay “appropriate” civil penalties.

“This is really part of a larger issue that has been a point of controversy for the last couple of years in terms of the kinds of personal information being made available to the government in the name of aviation security,” said David Sobel, EPIC general counsel.

A Northwest spokesman yesterday declined to comment, referring instead to a written statement that the company’s privacy policy had not been violated because the information was given directly to NASA, “a federal agency with its own privacy policy and all applicable federal laws.”

JetBlue Airways also was criticized last year for giving a military contractor computer data on 1 million of the carrier’s customers.

The Washington Times reported in September that NASA sent Northwest a letter asking for three months of passenger information to be used in the government data-mining study. Officials denied the activity to The Times, but it was confirmed this week after EPIC released government documentation the group obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Northwest said in the statement that Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson and company spokesmen were not aware of the study when asked by journalists, nearly two years after it began.

“Northwest believes that it was appropriate to provide data directly to NASA for a research study designed to improve aviation security. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, the federal government was searching for technological solutions to improve aviation security and it was the responsibility of the airline industry to cooperate with these efforts,” the statement said.

Northwest’s privacy policy assures customers that their private information will not be sold, but EPIC argues that the policy also assures passengers that the company will be in “complete control” of the use of information provided.

The NASA study also included information provided by millions of Americans in the 1990 census, including “information on both households and individuals.”

The NASA study cited the use of 439,381 passenger records and concluded that researchers were able to “mine data sets with millions of examples and many features” to detect threats.

The Transportation Security Administration is developing its own data-mining system — the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II — to determine the level of terrorist risk posed by each passenger.

“This disclosure is particularly significant now at a time when TSA is attempting to obtain large amounts of passenger information from airlines to test the CAPPS II profiling system,” Mr. Sobel said.

“Ultimately, if this is actually deployed, this type of disclosure will become routine,” he said.

Passenger records typically contain names, addresses, dates of birth and phone numbers. Extended records contain credit card information and other travel data.

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