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British Airways googles passengers in advance, raises privacy concerns

A British Airways aircraft carrying the Olympic Flame arrives at RNAS Culdrose air base in Cornwall, south-west England, on May 18, 2012.
A British Airways aircraft carrying the Olympic Flame arrives at RNAS Culdrose air base in Cornwall, south-west England, on May 18, 2012.

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British Airways recently announced a plan to launch a program called “Know Me,” where the airlines employees will use Google to find images of passengers so they know what they look like in advance of their trip on the airlines.

The “Know Me” program was directed to better serve VIP passengers, and will also search histories of passengers in records to see their travel history, meal requests or if they’ve previously had problems with flights from British Airways.

“We’re essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favourite restaurant when you’re welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers,” Jo Boswell, head of customer analysis at BA, told the London Evening Standard. “This is just the start — the system has a myriad of possibilities for the future.”

Privacy advocates think the system could be rife with abuse, and an invasion of privacy. British Airways doesn’t ask for passengers consent before signing up for the program.

Emma Carr, deputy director for Big Brother Watch, a UK-based organization that protects individual privacy and civil liberties, said if the airline wants this information in order to better serve their customers, they should simply ask for it.

“They need to be very transparent and explicit about who’s going to have this information, how they’re going to access it and especially how this information is going to be stored,” she said.

Carr explained that within the United Kingdom the Data Protection Act insures an individual’s information is protected. The new British Airways service may be in violation of that very law if they access information without “explicit permission from individuals,” Carr said.

Listeners to today’s show were divided on the issue -- some felt personal information found on social networking sites and around the internet is essentially public so companies like British Airways should have as much access to it as any individual.

But in the end, Carr said this really comes down to what the customer wants.

“I think for a lot of people they would find this kind of intimacy in terms of people knowing things about you that you haven’t necessarily told them or essentially knowing what you look like, to be quite an intimidating and quite an invasive thing,” she said.

One caller, Dave from Century City, said he liked the idea but thought the airline was going about it the “wrong” way.

“I’m a member of a cruise company...and...they ask us to fill out desires and preferences ahead of time. I walk in my cabin and I see my favorite drink sitting there and my bed is turned out exactly how I like it, but it’s all initiated by me and the cruise company,” Dave said. “I think the airline should ask the passengers what they like rather than trying to go behind their back to do it.”

Alex Williams, a writer for TechCrunch who reported on the British Airways program, said he has seen a mix of responses as well. Many seemed “passive” about the program, while others expressed apprehension.

Nonetheless there is a concern over what information is gleaned off the internet and how it is used.

“Data privacy has become an increasingly hot topic for people,” he said. “Part of the response has to come down on the vendors who are selling this technology. They really are pushing this capability to take your social data, take your customer data, take data from other third-parties and find and do an analysis on it.”

Williams did say there was a concern over whether or not British Airways would be selling or sharing customer information -- something that is not yet clear.

“That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern.”


Is British Airways invading individual privacy? Or should companies be free to use technology to provide a better experience to customers?


Emma Carr, Deputy Director for Big Brother Watch, a UK-based organization that protects individual privacy and civil liberties

Alex Williams,Writer for TechCrunch

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