American Airlines Data Collection

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Cory Doctorow is pretty unhappy about AA wanting to know who he's staying with in the US:
"I will be staying with a friend tonight, at a hotel near LAX tomorrow, and with a different friend in Tarzana for the rest of the week."

The security officer then handed me a blank piece of paper and said, "Please write down the names and addresses of everyone you're staying with in the USA."

I actually began to write this out when I was brought up short. "Wait a second -- since when does AA compile a written dossier on the names and addresses of my friends? Why are you asking me this? Do you have a privacy policy and a data-retention policy I can inspect prior to this?"

The security officer told me that this was a Transport Security Agency (TSA) regulation. I asked for the name or number of the regulation, its text, and the details of the data-retention and privacy practices in place at AA UK. The security officer wasn't able to answer my questions, and she went to get her supervisor.

After several minutes, her supervisor appeared and said, after introducing himself, "Sir, this is for your own protection."

I think it's pretty hard to argue that making passengers produce written dossiers on their friends' home addresses makes planes in the sky secure. I asked again if this was really a TSA regulation and what AA's privacy and data-retention policies are.

EG readers will know that I'm generally pretty unsympathetic to airline security and the "this is for your own protection" rationale, but this actually doesn't strike me as entirely stupid. The key thing is to stop thinking of this as data collection and start thinking of it as an interview.

When you interview for a job at Microsoft, they're apparently fond of asking you to solve puzzles. That's not because the interviewer cares how many stop lights there are in Minneapolis, but because he wants to use you're response to the question as a signal of whether you're smart. Similarly, when the security officer asks who you're staying with in the US, it's probably not because he actually cares but because he figures that someone who's going to blow the plane up in flight is less likely to have a good answer about where he's planning to stay in the US.

Obviously, this kind of technique only works well if the questions are a surprise, so it's hard to prepare in advance. One common technique for varying the questions is to listen to the interviewee's story and try to probe for holes. Based on Doctorow's post, it looks like that may have been what the interviewer was trying to do, since he only asked for this information after Doctorow told him he was staying with friends. (Though it's worth noting that this is the kind of question customs officers routinely ask.) Note that I'm not saying that AA's interviewing techniques actually do add much security--in my experience, this kind of interview is actually pretty easy to predict and prepare for--just that we can't tell from Doctorow's story that this kind of question is pointless.

Of course, this is a separate issue from what sort of data retention policy AA has, though they could of course just shred the paper afterward. Obviously, if they're keeping this sort of information in long-term storage he would have some basis for a complaint.

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