British Airways 'Loyalty' Program Raises Privacy Concerns
July 7, 2012

British Airways ‘Loyalty’ Program Raises Privacy Concerns

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A UK-based airline is facing criticism from privacy advocates over a new plan which allows staff members to identify customers by using a new computer system to search Google for images of them, according to various media reports published Friday.

According to John-Paul Ford Rojas of the Telegraph, British Airways cabin crew, check-in staff, and first-class lounge employees will be able to use the technology in order to meet and greet specific travelers.

It's called the "Know Me" system, he said, and the company told him that the goal was to be able to put together a name and a face before the customer arrives in the airport.

"The aim is to give the airline a more personal touch when serving important passengers, such as chief executives of financial companies, who may not be instantly recognizable by British Airways employees," Rojas said. "The carrier already identifies such passengers on each flight but until now staff would not have known what they looked like until they checked in. Now they will be able to approach such clients proactively."

"The program is able to send messages with information about specific passengers to the iPads of customer service agents and senior cabin crew or update check—in staff via the airline's computer system," he added. "The system also identifies data on passengers who may have encountered problems in the past so that they can 'go the extra mile' for them“¦ The airline aims to send 4,500 such 'personal recognition messages' a day by the end of this year."

Their motives might be innocent enough, but the program is raising the hackles of some privacy advocates.

"Surely if BA want[s] more information about us they can simply ask for it?" Emma Carr, deputy director of British civil liberties and privacy group Big Brother Watch, wrote in a blog post Friday, according to Angela Moscaritolo of PCMag.

Carr is asking the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to impose harsher penalties on firms who access information about their customers without their express consent, Moscaritolo added.

A British Airways spokesperson told Kelly Fiveash of the Register that "Know Me" was essentially a "loyalty program" for business-class travelers.

However, Fiveash said that a press release proclaimed that the purpose of the system was to "collate a wealth of data from every experience the customer has with the airline and translate that into meaningful service for that individual" -- which she said "sounds an awful lot like an identity database."

"I'd love to get righteously indignant about this, but first let's keep a couple things in mind: British Airways is only Googling passengers who are somewhat well-known, and only for the purpose of recognition," PCWorld's Jared Newman wrote in a July 6 article. "Still, there are problems with the way British Airways is doing this. Some customers just don't want to be bothered -- especially famous ones -- so it's presumptuous for the airline to think no one will mind being stalked on Google for the purpose of a greeting."

Newman suggests that the company should instead allow people to opt into the service, perhaps through a social network such as Twitter or Facebook.

"That way, the information would be more reliable and less creepy, and would only affect willing participants," he explained. "Using Google for image search is also a slippery slope that could lead to broader Internet data mining. Of course, advertisers already do this through tracking cookies, but it's much creepier to have your browsing habits come back to you in the real world than in a targeted online ad."