Northwest Airlines Shared Data; Privacy Group to File Complaint with DOT

Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Northwest Airlines submitted millions of passenger records — including credit card numbers, addresses and telephone numbers — to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center.

The carrier told the Washington Post that the data was for a secret US government project to improve aviation security.

Although passengers were not informed, Northwest officials insist privacy policies were not violated. Not so, says information-privacy group The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The organization plans to file a complaint with the US Department of Transportation.

This is the second such case in the US. Last year, JetBlue Airways admitted to violating customer privacy when it handed over 1.1 million passenger records to the US Defense Department. Passengers have since taken class-action lawsuits against the airline. (Fran Foo, Special to CNETAsia, 01/20)

Northwest released a statement Sunday saying that neither chief executive Richard Anderson nor spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch knew about Northwest’s release of passenger data when they spoke to reporters after the JetBlue story broke.

The airline said that on Sept. 23, 2003, Anderson responded to a reporter’s question about JetBlue by saying, `’Northwest Airlines will not share customer information, as JetBlue Airways has.”

The day before Anderson’s statement, Ebenhoch told The New York Times, “We do not provide that type of information to anyone.” (Associated Press, 01/18)

According to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, the two cases raise enough concern about the mining of personal data in the name of homeland security that Congress should hold hearings to prevent it from happening.

Rotenberg said the privacy organization, which learned of the Northwest case through Freedom of Information Act filings, is trying to determine who had access to the information and what they did with it.

Rotenberg said citizens have plenty to be concerned about. First, the government failed to follow legal procedures to obtain confidential information. And if it’s to help stop terrorism, “that’s something the public needs to be able to evaluate.” (Robin Evans, Mercury News, 01/19)