Should Airlines Google Their Passengers Before They Board?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 6 2012 2:15 PM

British Airways Googling Its Passengers: Good Customer Service or Freaky Privacy Invasion?

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British Airways' "Know Me" program collects information about individual passengers so the flight crew can personalize their service onboard.

Photo by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

We all know by now that websites track our online activities in order to personalize ads and content. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that offline businesses have started doing the same.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Yet British Airways’ announcement that it plans to start doing Google image searches of some customers so its staff can greet them by name isn’t sitting well with privacy advocates. “Since when has buying a flight ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you on the Internet?”, the delightfully named Nick Pickles of UK-based privacy group Big Brother Watch griped to the London Evening Standard.

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I’d say it has always meant that, Mr. Pickles, since I’ve never heard of any law requiring anyone to get permission before Googling someone. Even so, the privacy backlash does suggest that we draw a line between computers tracking us and actual people tracking us. Most of us seem to be OK with websites installing cookies on our computers so they can recall our preferences (language, region, password, and so forth). And while a few of us may still have qualms about Google’s computers scanning our emails to serve us personalized ads, most seem to have accepted even this level of automated intrusion. But when a stewardess looks up publicly available information, we get queasy in a hurry.

As far as I can tell, British Airways is being open and honest about what it’s doing. The purpose of its “Know Me” program, according to a press release, is “to collate a wealth of data from every experience the customer has with the airline and translate that into meaningful service for that individual.” From the press release:

The programme is able to send messages with information about specific customers to the iPads of customer service agents and senior cabin crew, or update check-in staff via the airline’s computer system. For example, they may be informed that a Silver Executive Club member is flying in business class for the first time thereby enabling the crew member to welcome that customer and explain the benefits of the cabin. Equally, if a regular traveller has experienced any issues on previous flights, such as a delay due to weather, the crew will be informed of that and will be able to go the extra mile, recognise the previous issue and thank the customer for their continued patronage.

As for the image search, the airline says it would be used only to help staff recognize the faces of a few select customers, such as “captains of industry,” so that they won’t have to ask who they are. Speaking as a non-captain of industry, that doesn't sound like a service that would win my everlasting loyalty, but neither does it sound Big Brother-esque. On the other hand, if British Airways wanted to avoid stoking privacy fears, you’d think it could have come up with a better final line for its statement about the “Know Me” program: “This is just the start though–the system has a myriad of possibilities for the future.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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