Timothy Noah thinks the JetBlue scandal is way overblown:

The information JetBlue gave the contractor, Torch Concepts, consisted of names, addresses, phone numbers, and itineraries. Admittedly, JetBlue did violate is own privacy policy, which states, “The financial and personal information collected on this site is not shared with any third parties.” This minor act of corporate malfeasance would have made a nice little story for Airways magazine. But Chatterbox can’t see what makes it a major national story.

After Torch Concepts got its hands on JetBlue’s names, addresses, phone numbers, and itineraries, it matched some of these up with data it purchased elsewhere. Apparently this included Social Security numbers and financial data. Much concern has been raised that this constituted government snooping into the lives of innocent Americans. (Torch Concepts never actually turned its data over to the TSA, but the TSA put Torch Concepts in touch with JetBlue and clearly hoped the result would be a usable prototype for the TSA’s airline screening in the future.) But the government already has financial data–in most cases, of much better quality–on everybody who pays income tax. It knows your Social Security number, too. It gave you your Social Security number.

The purpose of JetBlue’s collaboration with Torch Concepts was to compile profiling data on airline passengers. Torch Concepts’ strategy was to look for suspicious “transportation transactions,” “investment transactions,” and “biochemical transactions.” Given the reality of 9/11, some kind of profiling is going to occur. Whether these particular benchmarks will prove reliable is anybody’s guess. But almost anything would be an improvement on the current system, which relies heavily on unacknowledged racial profiling of Arabs and the escalating removal of clothing at the metal detectors. (For casual voyeurs, airports are now almost as much fun to visit as public beaches.)

Update (1319): A commenter, reasonably, asked my take on this.

I agree with Noah that the release of the info for security purposes is not unreasonable. I don’t have any problem with the ability of the government to track the travel patterns of those using airlines. The sheer numbers involved ensures that any individual’s habits will only be looked into if bells go off for some reason.

I disagree, though, that JetBlue’s release–sale?–of this information to a government contractor in violation of its privacy policy and absent a legal requirement to do so is “no big deal.” It seems to me they have a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard information that people reasonably expect to be private. If the FAA started requiring this information, it’s one thing. It’s quite another for JetBlue to do this on its own volition without announcing a policy change. Would knowing this make me less likely to fly JetBlue, assuming they were going somewhere I wanted to go and offered me substantially lower prices? Probably not. But it’s understandable that some people are upset.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. hln says:

    Yes, it may KNOW your social security numbers, but without that vital piece of data, the government cannot connect a Steve Smith, my favorite name example, who is travelling with JetBlue on 7/1/2003 to Newark with person xxx-xx-xxxx. When those pieces of data are connected while you, a consumer, are led to believe that Jet Blue’s policy dictates that any actions of yours do not break the law and are YOUR PRIVATE BUSINESS, then it’s somewhat of a big deal.

    This will severely damage Jet Blue’s image. The apologists are already out in full force (I blogged on this over the weekend). One of the main points I make, too, is that it’s not so much the release of the data that’s a big deal (though it’s not small) – it’s the PRESENTATION SHOWING that the data was released. Now there’s no “maybe we let some through” – no way to save face. That angers the public.

    I’m curious what you think – you didn’t say anything. I hit your blog off an RSS feed, so I’ve never visited and can’t guess your leanings.