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Northwest responds to data privacy criticism
Privacy advocates say Eagan-based Northwest Airlines violated its own privacy policies by sharing passenger information with the federal governement. Northwest officials say they simply complied with the government's counter-terrorism research. Privacy groups are threatening to take legal action in response to the airline's data-sharing.

St. Paul, Minn. — Northwest Airlines officials would not comment on tape, but they admit in a statement released late Sunday that the airline provided NASA with data on passengers who flew Northwest during a three-month period in 2001.

Airline officials say it was appropriate for the airline to provide data directly to NASA, because it was for a research study designed to improve aviation security. NASA has since ended the study, in part because of controversy over passenger privacy. The agency returned the passenger data to Northwest in September 2003.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, in Washington, D.C., first disclosed Northwest's data-sharing after receiving relevant documents from NASA through the Freedom of Information Act.

EPIC attorney David Sobel says Northwest violated its own privacy policy and must be held accountable.

"We are going to bring this complaint to the Department of Transportation, alleging that Northwest has engaged in an unfair and deceptive trade practice by disclosing passenger information," says Sobel.

The department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration aren't competent enough to keep nail files off of airplanes, let alone go through 1.5 million passenger records a day and decide who's dangerous and who's not.
- Michael Boyd, aviation consultant

While airline officials admit the carrier did not inform its passengers about sharing information with NASA, they say the data sharing did not violate Northwest's privacy policy.

That policy, posted on the airline's Web site, says Northwest will not sell individual customer names or other private profile information to third parties. The policy states it would share user names and e-mail addresses with company partners, but only if customers opt to receive those e-mails.

EPIC's Sobel says the policy conveys the impression that there would not be any disclosures outside the limited circumstances described, such as selling information to marketers.

"They tell their customers, in that privacy policy for instance, that customers will have complete control over the use of personal information provided to Northwest. Now, there is language talking about how they will not sell the information, but that is not the only limitation that the privacy policy talks about," says Sobel. "I think it's certainly fair to say that any reasonable Northwest passenger who looks at that privacy policy will conclude that this is not what they were bargaining for."

Sobel says the Northwest data includes personal information on up to 10 million passengers.

Northwest officials have not said how many passenger records they shared with NASA.

Northwest is the second airline in five months to acknowledge data sharing with the government.

In September 2003, JetBlue Airways admitted to sharing personal information with a government contractor on about one million passengers. Shortly after those charges became public, Northwest CEO Richard Anderson publicly stated, "Northwest Airlines will not share customer information as JetBlue Airways has."

The airline now says at the time Anderson made the remark, he "had no knowledge" of Northwest's sharing data with NASA.

Some security experts say the problem with data sharing is not just about privacy. They say data mining is a waste of time and resources that never gets to the issue of security.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd of Evergreen, Colorado, says the federal government is misguided in its insistence on data sharing.

"What this presupposes is, 'We have to do something, don't we? We really have to check all our passengers.' No we don't!" Boyd says. "And even if we did, we better realize that the department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration -- they aren't competent enough to keep nail files off of airplanes, let alone go through 1.5 million passenger records a day and decide who's dangerous and who's not."

Despite the controversy over data sharing, the Transportation Security Administration is expected to issue an order as soon as next month compelling all airlines to take part in a program that takes passenger information and scores it according to threat level of the passenger.

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