Washington, DC - In a blow to the privacy of air travelers, the Department of Transportation has dismissed a complaint against Northwest Airlines. The complaint alleged that Northwest airlines, by giving three months' worth of passenger data to NASA for research into passenger profiling without the knowledge or consent of its customers, violated its own privacy policy and committed an unfair and deceptive trade practice.

The Transportation Department found that Northwest's privacy policy "did not unambiguously preclude it from sharing data with the federal government," despite the fact that the policy clearly states that Northwest does not sell passenger data to third parties, and that passengers are "in complete control" of their travel planning, including "the use of information [they] provide to Northwest Airlines." The Department added insult to injury by stating that even if the privacy policy clearly promised that Northwest would not share data with the government, that promise would not overcome the "moral imperative" that Northwest had to help improve airline security, especially considering that privacy is "not an absolute personal and fundamental right, particularly in the context of air travel."

"In addition to revealing that the Transportation Department has little regard for the privacy of the citizens it is supposed to serve, this case clearly demonstrates the failure of privacy policies to actually protect anyone's privacy," said Kevin Bankston, EFF attorney and Equal Justice Works/Bruce J. Ennis fellow. "Unfortunately, privacy policies aren't promises but public relations tools, intentionally worded to create as few binding commitments as possible. The American public should demand that companies that collect their personal information develop more explicitly protective policies, and make them an enforceable part of the contract with the customer."


Kevin Bankston
Attorney, Equal Justice Works / Bruce J. Ennis Fellow
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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