Covering the Traveler's Electronic Trail

Practical Nomad author Edward Hasbrouck lays out the case that these enormously intimate records are too important not to protect

To travelers around the world, Edward Hasbrouck is the Practical Nomad, the go-to authority on international travel, an expert on airfares, and how to get the best deals on the Internet. A few years ago, when the author of the Practical Nomad travel books started to worry about the privacy of travel data, few people paid much mind. Who cared if buying airline tickets or renting cars online would make it easier than ever for corporations and the government to know where you go, when, and with whom? Travelers were more concerned about tracing the best path to far-flung destinations than about being tracked themselves.

All that changed on September 11, 2001. The massacres at New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon put travel data in the spotlight. Within months, the newly formed Homeland Security Dept. had proposed creating a government database, dubbed CAPPS-II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), that would combine names, addresses, phone numbers, and dates of birth, plus law-enforcement and intelligence files.

It's an effort to alert airlines and law-enforcement officials if someone fitting the profile of a terrorist tries to board a flight. Admiral James M. Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has said his privacy amens, but he's vague about just how he plans to protect the personal information that will be collected and analyzed for CAPPS-II.

So, Hasbrouck is leading a charge to persuade policymakers and citizens that travel data should be protected from prying eyes -- just as financial or health data are. BusinessWeek Online reporter Jane Black caught up with Hasbrouck as he was on the road in Argentina. (Along with Uruguay, he believes Argentina is one of the world's best travel values.) Here are edited excerpts of their e-mail exchange:

Q: Why is it so important to keep travel data private?


Travel data is enormously intimate. Archived computerized records show not just everywhere you've ever gone on an airline, when, and with whom, but also [what happens] behind the closed doors of your hotel room. It tells whether you asked for one bed or two. And unlike medical or financial data, there's no law at all [in the U.S.] restricting how the records of your travels are stored, sold, or used, or who can see them.

Q: How could such data be abused?


Companies could use this information for targeted marketing and data-mining. [Imagine time-share salespeople to whom your travel data was sold showing up at your hotel to sell you a local property.] Governments can use this data for surveillance and monitoring of people who have been convicted of no crime. Even years later, your travel records could be scrutinized for signs of your interests and activities. I've had clients -- international human-rights lawyers -- who were found and deported by a foreign government that had obtained access to their records of flights on a U.S.-based airline.

Q: What are the current threats to travel privacy?


Currently, the TSA is developing and testing a new system called CAPPS-II, under which airlines would be required to collect additional information from all passengers for government use. Airlines would also have to make all reservations information available. It's being promoted as a security system, but it would serve no security purpose. As it's currently envisioned by the TSA, it would be useful only for surveillance and monitoring. Airlines like it because it will give them more information to sell or use for marketing.

CAPPS-II would require major changes to airline and travel-agency computer systems. To deliver the additional data the government wants, it would effectively conscript the reservation systems so that they function as surveillance and monitoring agents. Once given to the TSA, travel records could be given to other government agencies or to any foreign government [see BW Online, 4/17/03, "The System That Doesn't Safeguard Travel"].

Q: Will such a system really make us more secure? If not, what better security measures exist that could prevent terrorism and protect privacy?


We're in more danger from identity theft and stalking than from airline terrorism. Other measures that are standard in the rest of the world such as positive matching, where baggage is not loaded on to the plane unless the passenger is on board, would be more effective in preventing terrorism. But the airlines have resisted them as too costly [see BW Online, 4/10/03, "Better Safety Is in the Bag"].

Q: What should the average person do?


In the short term, people need to tell Congress to put a stop to CAPPS-II. Citizens of the European Union, where there are privacy laws that would be violated by CAPPS-II, should complain to their national privacy commissioners.

Privacy is back on the congressional agenda [after being left off for 18 months after September 11], and there's growing recognition that travel data is at the center of the privacy debate. I think Congress has begun to get the message that there's no base of public support for CAPPS-II. [On June 17, the House Appropriations Committee voted to withhold funds for the CAPPS-II, until the General Accounting Office issues a report finding that the system is effective and has adequate privacy protections. A similar bill has also been introduced in the Senate.]

Q: Do you think legislation will be forthcoming any time soon that protects travel data the same way health and financial data are protected? If so, what are the key points to be included?


I'm relatively optimistic -- more so than ever -- that Congress will do something. The question is whether it will be limited to CAPPS-II or will be a general travel-privacy law or even a general data-privacy law like those in Canada [the best model for the U.S.] and Europe.

The basic idea, as in all privacy regulation, is to give travelers...control over how their information is used by granting them "notice," their right to know when their data is accessed or changed; "consent," their right to give permission before information is sold or shared; and "access," their right to view their data and make corrections if necessary. You also need to regulate the use of [travel] data by the government and by private companies -- especially the [information in] computerized reservation systems, which are central to the problem. They play the same role as central data repositories of credit bureaus do for financial data. But they have been largely invisible thus far in the debate over CAPPS-II.

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