NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 4 September 23, 1996
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.

Airport Security and Passenger Privacy

Privacy advocates both on and off the Net have expressed outrage over the Clinton Administration's plan to create computer files on airline passengers in order to help identify "potential terrorists" and other "suspicious individuals." But there has been much less said about the equally outrageous demand by some airlines that passengers show a photo ID before boarding.

While not strictly technology-based, this is a good issue for Net activists to use in building coalitions with grassroots organizations. According to the airlines that require passengers to provide a photo ID before boarding, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for this threat to the privacy and civil liberties of airline passengers. Who is affected by this requirement? Literally anyone who chooses to travel by air rather than opting for one of the available forms of ground transportation. Business and pleasure travelers, seniors, youth, rich and poor alike are being told to surrender their privacy as a condition of boarding their flight.

Part of what makes this a strong issue for organizing and coalition building is that airline passengers don't need to understand anything about computers to understand why the ID requirement is an invasion of privacy. It's a straightforward privacy threat that affects a broad constituency. Furthermore, efforts to educate the public about the ID requirement can easily be used as a springboard for discussing the more technically-complex issue of the potential threat to privacy in the government's plan to create a huge database that profiles airline passengers and details their travel and bill-paying habits.

As a starting point, privacy advocates need to know more about the experiences of passengers who have challenged the airline ID requirement.

While I had a relatively unpleasant experience with United Airlines last spring when I challenged that airline's claim that my ID was required by the FAA, it was a non-event compared to the more recent experience of John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Gilmore's refusal to provide ID led to his arrest at San Francisco International Airport.

Gilmore's attorney, Lee Tien of Berkeley, subsequently submitted a request to the FAA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for copies of the security directives that airlines claim require them to demand that passengers provide picture ID's before boarding their flights. It will be interesting to see how the FAA responds, since a similar request by privacy advocate Robert Ellis Smith was already rejected by the FAA on the basis that "disclosure of information from this document would undermine the effectiveness of the measure."

The FAA's refusal to disclose the specific wording of its security directive has led some passengers and travel agents to speculate that the demand has less to do with concerns about potential terrorists than it does with concerns about the resale of low-cost tickets. The only way we will know for sure is if the FAA releases the secret security directive. Then we can all see for ourselves exactly what the FAA is requiring the airlines to do.

While Tien and Gilmore wait for the FAA's response to their FOIA request, I am interested in hearing about the experiences of others who have challenged the airline ID requirement. Please contact me by email or phone if you have an experience to share.

And start now to educate your friends and neighbors about this issue. Write a letter about it to the editor of your local newspaper. Call up a radio talk show and complain. Challenge the next airline representative who asks you for ID. For background on the issue of airline passenger privacy, visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Web site at: Activists, whether online or not, need to speak out now on this issue before our privacy rights are further erroded by the government's ill-conceived effort to ensure our "security."

Copyright 1996 by NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source.

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