A lot has been going on in the airline industry as of late. United has received the OK to shed some of its employee pensions, gas prices are eating away at airline profits, and just last week, a plane almost “attacked” Washington. Clearly, it’s an uncertain future for the friendly skies. But there’s another headline that grabbed my attention even more.
A little bird on Yahoo! News told me of a proposal that would have airlines asking their passengers for more personal information whenever they fly. I read and reread the article, trying to figure out what it was that made me so leery about this particular proposition, and then it finally came to me.
According to this proposal, the Transportation Security Administration is set to begin asking all airline passengers for their full names and birthdates in order to avoid some of the confusion that has arose in terms of innocent people accidentally being confused with individuals on the terrorist watch list because of having similar names. According to the article, this name-related mix-up even happened to Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. It seems that if providing a full name and birthdate could clear up these types of mistakes before the fact, the airlines should have been doing it a long time ago.
But here’s the catch: Airlines won’t be in charge of this process. By the time a person checks in, the government will have already provided the passenger’s name, address, and credit card information to the airline. Some people might not mind so much, as this new information really isn’t much more than airlines had previously.
This program is being administered by the TSA, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. Again, what’s the big deal? Before the TSA could implement this new program, Congress passed a law requiring the TSA to satisfy 10 criteria for the safety and security of personal passenger information. In March, the TSA failed to satisfy 9 out of 10 of those criteria, but the TSA still claims it will be ready to roll out the program by August. Furthermore, the information they are supposed to be verifying for the airlines is going to be checked against commercial databases, one of which is administered by a private company that sparked heavy controversy in 2002 for sharing unaware passengers’ personal information with a defense contractor.
This plan has plenty of worrisome implications. First, even before the publication of George Orwell’s “1984,” people worried about “Big Brother” looking over their shoulders. With every new bit of information that a person is required to share, we come closer and closer to seeing that reality. It’s a relatively easy-to-follow slippery slope. First, it’s names and birthdates. Next, it could be fingerprints and social security numbers; then what? Admittedly, that’s a bit melodramatic, but every terrible idea has a first step.
Additionally, the people administering this new plan will have increased control over private information, but have yet to prove that they are capable of protecting it. A weekend flight to Vegas could end up costing you a lot more than the money you lose at the craps table. For the 250,000 ChoicePoint customers who were notified that their information was released by a company that most people didn’t even know existed, this possibility hits a little too close to home, and whenever private companies and government agencies intermingle, it’s a scary state of affairs.
Third, there’s no proof that providing this information will contribute to the “war on terror.” If someone is serious enough about hijacking an airplane, it seems likely they’re serious enough to take the time to “arrange for” an identity that won’t set off alarms. In essence, this precaution really means very little to our safety if a terrorist were determined enough.
Lastly, according to Justin Oberman, the TSA official heading the collection program, “Passengers do not have to provide (their information), but if they don’t, there’s a better chance they’ll have to undergo more stringent screening at the airport.” Translation: “Do what we tell you, or risk a full body cavity search.” It’s just one more instance of our allowing the government a more-than-necessary amount of oversight and authority.
Kind of makes me wonder if this is what the Wright Brothers had in mind when they got that first plane off the ground.
Ryan Skinnell is a graduate student studying English.