Should Homeland Security (and the Airlines) Hire Facebook and Google?

Our driving licenses identify us not only by our name but also by our picture, our age, our height, weight, address, possibly even eye color too. Why do airlines pretend that the slightest difference in name invalidates all the other identifiers?

The news over the last few weeks has been all about Facebook – how much it knows about us, how it knows things about us that we’ve not told it, how it finds out things about us that we’ve not agreed for it to uncover, and how it shares that information, for a fee, with advertisers and others.

Like a simmering pot, always about to boil over, there’s been a steady flow of similar stories about Google and the information it keeps about us, including everywhere we go and every search we make.  It even keeps the stuff we delete!  This points to an interesting dualism on Google’s part – it limits the amount of free storage we can get from their services, and that’s fair enough.  But at the same time it is limiting our storage (and hoping to sell us more at a profit) it has no apparent limit to the amount of storage it dedicates to each and every one of us, itself.

Now add to that the credit reporting bureaus, who know all about everything we buy and how much we earn, and other information clearing services who know all our answers to the strange questions we’re often asked when completing warranty forms, and so is it ever any surprise that we sometimes see advertisements on web pages for things that we’ve been going to look for, but haven’t got around to doing so, yet?  Put together the information from these various private sources (all of whom gleefully sell the data any time they can, because that is, after all, why they collect it), and our lives are laid bare, with no surprises nor secrets.

There’s been another thing happening at the same time.  The growing richness of this data means that it is easier and easier for these services to identify us, and to no longer confuse John Smith who lives in the town of Nebraska, Texas with John Smith who lives in the town of Texas, Nebraska.  They know that the first John Smith is an old guy who votes Republican, with three children and seven grandchildren, and an old Buick in the driveway of his rented apartment, whereas the other John Smith is a 20-something-year-old, college graduate, currently in an intense relationship with Suzie Robinson, and driving a Lexus.

These databases no longer require a complex set of identifiers to uniquely differentiate two people with similar names and addresses from each other.  Most of a name, and one or two other generic descriptors, like approximate age, maybe city (but not complete address) and perhaps voter registration is all they need with their ‘big data’ and ‘fuzzy logic’ to come up with a highly reliable match.

But, as we all know, and as we all risk every time we travel, this is not so much the case with Homeland Security, nor the airlines they work with.  We might hope that is because they wish to be 110% certain not to confuse two people with each other, but we know that’s not at all the case. The two John Smiths cited above are always at risk of being denied boarding when they head to the airport because a Jumal Abdullah Smith is on a terrorist watch list and somehow the names got cross-linked.  US Senators are confused with convicted criminals.  And so on.

This is part of the reason, we are told, that airlines require us to have our full complete names, exactly as they are shown on our passports or other identification, on our tickets.  This is to allow the TSA and the dozens of other vague three-letter agencies to match us against their databases and decide if it is safe to let us on board the plane or not.

That sounds fair enough.  But, surely you know by now, that little the airlines say should be taken at face value.

The Inconsistencies in the Airlines’ Pretenses

For example, consider this recent item about a lady who was turned away when she tried to take her flight on Wow Air from Toronto to Iceland – because her ticket didn’t include her middle name.  Okay, big deal, you might think.  A few keystrokes in the computer, change her name, maybe pay a fee, and off she goes.  Nope, not so.  Wow told her they couldn’t allow her on the flight at all.  Instead, she had to buy a new ticket to travel the next day, and – talk about adding insult to injury – pay an additional $23 to change the name on her return flight on the original ticket, too.  The new one-way ticket cost more than the earlier roundtrip ticket did.

Wow said they couldn’t change the names of passengers in the last four hours before a flight departs.  Permit me to call BS on that claim.

We all know how long it takes a computer to look up a name or to do just about any other action.  I’d accept a claim that name changes maybe couldn’t be done in the last four seconds, but four hours?  Why so long?

We also all know that the answer to this question is ‘for security reasons’.  But that is only believable if Wow also refuses to sell tickets to new passengers in the last four hours before departure, and as far as I’m aware, they’ll gleefully accept money from anyone at any time, just so long as you can get to the gate before the door closes.

For that matter, what about waitlisted passengers, or passengers changing their flight from one flight to another one.  There’s not an airline in the world that refuses to clear waitlists and standby passengers within the last four hours prior to a flight departing.

In the case of international travel, the final passenger manifest is necessarily only shared with the country the flight is traveling to after the flight has pushed back, because until then, no-one knows for sure who will be boarding, who will be no-showing and not traveling, and who mightn’t get their standby waitlist cleared at the last minute.

This woman’s experience is far from unusual, indeed the article says that Wow admitted to refusing 11 people off its flight the previous day for the same reason.  They’re clearly making big money from their little game.

The Airlines Make it Difficult to Comply

So here’s a suggestion to Wow.  If you’re going to insist on middle names, how about adding another name field for middle names, instead of just having two name fields and expecting us to know where to show our middle name?  After all, if you’re a stupid computer (or an airline desk agent) there’s a difference between a guy who is called Billy Bob Jones, with ‘Billy Bob’ being his first name and no middle name, and a person who is called Billy Bob Jones, with Bob being his middle name.

Some airlines don’t even require middle names on tickets at all.

This is a problem which the airlines have largely created themselves and which they definitely refuse to solve.  If there truly is a problem, why not add another field into the computer record for entering the identification number of the ID being used.  Your passport number or your driver’s license number or whatever.  Indeed, that is already done any time you fly internationally, your passport number is entered into your flight record.  That is the key identifier that Homeland Security would use to identify you and look you up in their records.  Not your name, but your passport number.

And really, so you show up at the airport with your ticket in the name of Bill Johnson and your driver’s license in the name of William Patrick Johnson.  A single glance at the license is enough to show the counter clerk that you are the same person, because you’re the same general age, the same general appearance, height, weight, and eye color as is shown on your license.  You even live at the same address. Does anyone care that your ticket name and license name are slightly different, when it is clear as day you’re the same person?

History Repeating Itself?

This whole problem, which not uncoincidentally is one the airlines profit from every time they refuse to carry us and demand we buy another ticket costing more than the ticket we already have and now can’t use, is eerily similar to the bad old days before e-ticketing.

Back when airlines knew all about you, your flights, and the paper ticket that you’d paid for and been issued, they would nonetheless obdurately refuse to allow you onto your flight unless you could show them the actual paper ticket that you’d paid for.  If you didn’t have it, if you were lucky, they’d charge you a huge fee to print another one, and if you were unlucky, you’d have to buy a second brand-new ticket at full last-minute fare.  For many years the airlines succeeded in delaying a transition to ticketless travel, while at the same time, reveling in the extra fees they could generate when hapless passengers turned up at airports without their tickets.

Isn’t it time the airlines stop hiding behind invented rules and “security”.  If Google knows everywhere we travel, and Facebook knows everyone we know, why can’t the airlines access that data and stop pretending that Bill Johnson, who looks identical to the driving license he is carrying that refers to William P Johnson, is a different person.

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