Lay Off JetBlue

A “serious betrayal” of consumer privacy? Get real.

Why all the hysteria about JetBlue? On Sept. 16, Wired News broke the story that the discount airline had shared old passenger itineraries with a government contractor seeking to improve the screening of airline passengers. It had received the tip from Paul Weyrich, the cultish chairman of the far-right Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich, who’s very interested in privacy issues, had learned about JetBlue’s actions from “a very high-level official at the Transportation Security Administration.” Wired News ran with it. The AP picked up the story, erroneously attributing the scoop to privacy advocate Bill Scannell. (Wired News made it perfectly plain that Weyrich was its original source. Scannell was cited merely as a confirming source. Was AP simply embarrassed to state the story’s real provenance?) The following day, the story landed with a thud on Page One of the New York Times, whose editorial page was soon declaring it “one of the most serious betrayals of consumers’ privacy rights by an American business.” Now lawsuits are being filed, a formal complaint is being lodged with the Federal Trade Commission, and JetBlue’s CEO, David Neeleman, is begging its customers’ forgiveness.

Forgiveness for what? As a general rule, airline passengers do not reveal their darkest, most intimate secrets when they book a flight. The information JetBlue gave the contractor, Torch Concepts, consisted of names, addresses, phone numbers, and itineraries. Admittedly, JetBlue did violate is own privacy policy, which states, “The financial and personal information collected on this site is not shared with any third parties.” This minor act of corporate malfeasance would have made a nice little story for Airways magazine. But Chatterbox can’t see what makes it a major national story.

After Torch Concepts got its hands on JetBlue’s names, addresses, phone numbers, and itineraries, it matched some of these up with data it purchased elsewhere. Apparently this included Social Security numbers and financial data. Much concern has been raised that this constituted government snooping into the lives of innocent Americans. (Torch Concepts never actually turned its data over to the TSA, but the TSA put Torch Concepts in touch with JetBlue and clearly hoped the result would be a usable prototype for the TSA’s airline screening in the future.) But the government already has financial data—in most cases, of much better quality—on everybody who pays income tax. It knows your Social Security number, too. It gave you your Social Security number.

The purpose of JetBlue’s collaboration with Torch Concepts was to compile profiling data on airline passengers. Torch Concepts’ strategy was to look for suspicious “transportation transactions,” “investment transactions,” and “biochemical transactions.” Given the reality of 9/11, some kind of profiling is going to occur. Whether these particular benchmarks will prove reliable is anybody’s guess. But almost anything would be an improvement on the current system, which relies heavily on unacknowledged racial profiling of Arabs and the escalating removal of clothing at the metal detectors. (For casual voyeurs, airports are now almost as much fun to visit as public beaches.)

So, where’s the concrete harm? “It’s really quite unclear what the damages are,” says Solveig Singleton, a senior analyst at the libertarian Competitiveness Enterprise Institute. Singleton is a frequent critic of privacy advocates, but on this point, privacy advocate Marcia Hofmann, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, agrees. “When you’re dealing with privacy law, it’s always a problem trying to define how someone was injured,” she told Chatterbox. When pressed, Hofmann cited the hypothetical risk of identity theft. Surely, though, the data most helpful to identity thieves is what’s available publicly, not what some government agency keeps private for law enforcement.

There was one troubling instance where Torch Concepts put information it compiled on one individual (including the Social Security number, but minus the name) on the Web, as a sample of what it can do. In the Sept. 24 Wall Street Journal, Torch said that information has now been destroyed. That isn’t true. Chatterbox clicked onto the data just today. Want to guess how Chatterbox found it? Through a document posted by the privacy-obsessed Electronic Privacy Information Center!

Here’s a little personal information about Chatterbox: Last month, on the recommendation of the Chattersister, he booked a flight to Los Angeles with the Chatterkinder on JetBlue. Circumstances required him to change the flight fairly close to the departure date. It was a complicated transaction that involved removing Chatterbox from the return flight and substituting Mammy Chatterbox. The JetBlue agent with whom Chatterbox spoke was unfailingly competent and kind in making these changes, which occasioned a minimal additional charge.

When Chatterbox and the Chatterkinder walked onto the plane, the overhead racks were spewing what appeared to be smoke. That was momentarily alarming. But it turned out to be condensation! It was a very humid day, and someone had made the improbable decision to crank up the air conditioning to make the passengers more comfortable! The plane itself was brand-new, with leather seats, legroom far exceeding anything Chatterbox had ever encountered in coach, individualized DirectTV for every passenger, and a little card tucked behind the barf bag recommending yoga positions to ease muscle strain during the flight, which took off and arrived on time. All the more remarkable was that these luxuries were available on a discount airline. In sum, this commercial flight was a pleasurable consumer experience. When’s the last time you saw the words “commercial flight” and “pleasurable” in the same sentence? (No, Chatterbox doesn’t own any JetBlue stock, or know anyone who works for the company.)

So, they made a trivial goof enforcing their privacy policy. They don’t need to apologize to Chatterbox, who looks forward to his next flight on JetBlue.