Nov 10 2013

Big Brother in the Sky

Published by at 10:21 pm under General

I fly a lot; I’ve flown well over 100K miles this year so far, and at least as much the previous two years.  I know that the airlines I fly, primarily Star Alliance, know a lot about me.  And I know that security isn’t one of their primary concerns, something illustrated very graphically by the way United’s own site log on and phone system treats passwords and PINs.  So don’t expect me to be very hopeful that they’ll do a very good job in protecting my information from threats internal or external as they begin creating huge data mines about every customer who ever flies the friendly skies.

It still surprises me slightly when an attendant on a flight greets me by name when I get an upgrade, but when I think about it, I shouldn’t be.  After all, every seat on the plane is assigned, we filled out forms telling them what our credit card numbers are, where we’re coming from, where we’re going and what we’d like to eat along the way.  Now take that a few steps farther and start keeping track of what we like to drink on the way, what movies we watched while we’re in the air and what each of our destinations have been in the last five years.  It’s fairly easy to build up a pretty sophisticated profile on a customer from just that data, but if you add in all the little tracking details that might be available from when you were browsing the Internet to purchase the ticket to begin with a whole new world of profiling exists for the airlines to explore.  I truly doubt their ability to protect this data in a meaningful way, which means it’ll be open to attackers, whether they’re governments or organized crime.

It’s interesting that the airlines, or at least American Airlines, are cognizant that there’s a line that once crossed brings them into “creepy” territory.  I fly enough that I recognize some of the staff on my flights, but imagine if you’re meeting a steward on a flight for the first time and they apologize that the airline lost your luggage on your last trip.  Or they ask you how your vacation to Greece was.  The potential for stalkers amongst the crew might be a far fetched idea, but it only takes one really strange person to ruin your day.

Data mining is a given in this day and age, so I guess the only really surprising thing about the airlines getting into it is that they took so long.  I don’t know what they hope to sell me on my flight, since I’ve never purchased anything from an in-flight magazine, but they’re definitely hoping they can increase profits somehow.  Personally, I’m more concerned about getting an upgrade to business class than I am with making a purchase on their site.  And I wish they could put a little more of that computing power into making sure my flights leave and arrive on time rather than trying to sell me stuff.


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