Northwest CEO Urges Airline Execs To Talk Privacy

Stinging from a privacy gaffe at his own company, Northwest Airlines CEO asks fellow execs to discuss privacy policies.
At a meeting of top U.S. airlines executives Thursday, Northwest Airlines Inc. CEO Richard H. Anderson recommended that the Air Transport Association discuss developing a data-protection protocol to address privacy concerns about passenger data.

Northwest officials declined to discuss specifics of the proposed privacy practices, citing the need to discuss options with other ATA members. According to an ATA statement about the meeting, "There was a robust discussion about the importance of protecting traveler privacy under CAPPS II," the federal government's computer-assisted passenger-prescreening system. Airline executives reviewed a number of privacy-policy issues raised by CAPPS II and listened to a presentation by Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The airline executives' meeting comes days after Northwest Airlines admitted it provided NASA researchers with three months worth of passenger data in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. According to Northwest, NASA requested in December 2001 that Northwest's security department provide it with passenger name data from the period July through September 2001 for NASA's exclusive use in its research study. Northwest Airlines agreed to provide data, though it provided data for October through December 2001.

On Tuesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy-rights activist group, filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation saying that Northwest's actions violated the airlines' privacy policy and constituted unfair and deceptive business practices. Northwest has maintained that providing the data to a government agency for security purposes is not a violation of its privacy policy. The Transportation Department has said it will investigate the complaint.

Lee Tien, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another privacy activist group, sees the airline industry's discussion of privacy as a positive step but calls for more investigation. He contends that a congressional investigation is necessary to determine the extent to which passenger data is made available to government and industry.

Last September, JetBlue Airlines drew criticism for a similar privacy gaffe when it admitted that it provided a defense contractor with information on 5 million passengers as part of a risk-assessment project the contractor was conducting to improve security at military bases. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman publicly apologized for the incident, although a lawsuit filed by JetBlue customers is pending.

Following a speech at the St. Paul, Minnesota Rotary Club later that month, CEO Anderson said, "Northwest Airlines will not share customer information, as JetBlue Airways has." According to Northwest, Anderson had no knowledge of his company's dealings with NASA until three days later.

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