Friday, 22 August 2014
Key U.S. Senator questions airlines on privacy practices
The Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), has sent a public letter of inquiry this week to the ten largest USA-based airlines, asking them to respond by 5 September 2014 to a series of questions about consumer issues including what information airlines collect about travellers, how long they retain this information, how they use and share it, and whether they allow consumers to access the information that airlines have on file about them.
In announcing this action, Sen. Rockefeller notes that:
Currently, there is no federal privacy law that covers the collection, use, and disclosure of consumer travel information. Because of this gap in federal law, consumer advocates have expressed concern that airline privacy policies can contain substantial caveats and that it is difficult for consumers to learn what information airlines and others in the travel sector are collecting, keeping, and sharing about them.
Sen. Rockefeller's letter didn't name those "consumer advocates", and I've never had any direct interaction with his staff or that of the committee he chairs. But I assume that his letter was referring to, and prompted in significant part by:
- The comments I submitted to the Federal Trade Commission on behalf of a coalition of consumer and privacy organizations in 2009;
- The presentation I gave as the sole consumer advocate invited to testify at a hearing called by the Department of Transportation's "Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection" in May of 2013; and
- The joint letter I sent to the ACACP in December 2013 on behalf of a much longer list of consumer advocacy, privacy, and civil liberties organizations.
Thanks are due to all of the organizations that co-signed these joint appeals, and especially to Charlie Leocha of Travelers United (formerly the Consumer Travel Alliance), for getting this issue on the ACACP agenda and helping to bring it to the attention of Congress as a consumer protection matter.
There's been slight but non-zero interest over the years from a few members of Congress in what information government agencies collect and retain about travellers, and how they use that data.
Sen. Rockefeller's letter is, however, the first time that any member of Congress has publicly -- or, so far as I know, privately -- expressed any interest whatsoever in any of the privacy issues related to commercial use by travel companies of personal data about travellers.
Government and commercial invasions of travellers' privacy are, in most real-world situations, inseparable. The U.S. governments has root access to airline reservation databases, and makes its own mirror copies of airline customer relationship data included in commercial PNRs. Airlines and government agencies share passenger data promiscuously and "transparently (i.e opaquely), so travbellers can't tell when they are providing information to an airline, when they are providing information to a police officer, and when -- especially at airports -- they are providing information to a two-faced minion of both government and commercial masters. Airlines get a free pass to use data for their own marketing and other purposes that travellers provide only under government coercion. Even those people and organizations who have been concerned only about governments as invaders of travellers' privacy ought to be at least equally concerned about travel industry privacy (invasion) practices.
Sen. Rockefeller's letter of inquiry isn't a subpoena, and isn't formally backed by the full committee. But it carries the implicit threat of follow-up action that could include subpoenas, hearings, and/or the introduction of legislative proposals if the airlines don't give satisfactory answers.
And Sen Rockefeller is asking many of the right questions:
Do you retain personal information that your company obtains from consumers when they shop for airfares or from other sources? If yes:
- State the period of time your company retains such information and what specific data points you retain;
- State any specific sources for personal information or other such information your company obtains directly from consumers;...
- State whether you provide consumers the right to access the information you maintain about them... ;
- State whether you sell or share this information, and if you do, describe what information you share, with whom you share it, and the purposes for which you share it; and
I expect that airlines' responses to Sen. Rockefeller's inquiry will be as incomplete and disingenuous as the stories that airline industry representatives told the ACACP at its hearing last year.
In practice, I've found no airline (even among the airlines based in Canada and the EU where this is required by law) that actually allows travellers to obtain all of the records that the airline keeps about them, including records such as browsing logs for registered and signed-in users of airline Web sites, despite airlines' plans to use this data to personalize ticket prices.
In practice, I've found no airline that accepts responsibility for data collection, retention, use, or sharing by travel agencies, even when those agencies are explicitly appointed to act, and explicitly state that they are acting, solely as agents of the airlines in executing contracts of carriage to which only the airlines, and not the agencies, are actually parties.
In practice, I've found no airline that complies with its privacy policies (if it publishes any).
In practice, no airline that outsources hosting of some or all of its reservation records (either or both those PNRs created directly by the airline or those PNRs created by the airline's its agents) to any of the major computerized reservation systems could possibly provide a complete accounting of third parties who have accessed personal information contained on those PNRs, since none of the major CRSs keep logs of who has accessed which PNRs (and each of them aggregates data from thousands of travel companies and has tens of thousands of "authorized" users around the world).
Airlines are almost certain to lie or obfuscate to Sen. Rockefeller on all of these points.
Hopefully, Sen. Rockefeller will publish the airlines' responses, consult with independent experts, and move forward, along with other members of the Commerce Committee, to hold hearings on this issue and sponsor either a general Federal consumer privacy law that includes airlines along with other types of companies (as do such laws in Canada and the EU), or, failing that, a strong specific travel privacy law applicable to airlines, travel agencies, computerized reservation systems, and their contractors and outsourced data processing vendors.
Friday, 15 August 2014
"Disobedient Objects" exhibit at the V&A museum in London
I'm honored to have my photo of a "wiphala" (above; click photo for larger version) included in an exhibit of Disobedient Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London through 1 February 2015:
From a Suffragette tea service to protest robots, this exhibition is the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. It demonstrates how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design.... On display are arts of rebellion from around the world that illuminate the role of making in grassroots movements for social change: finely woven banners; defaced currency; changing designs for barricades and blockades; political video games; an inflatable general assembly to facilitate consensus decision-making; experimental activist-bicycles; and textiles bearing witness to political murders.
As I explained in the column about "The Amazing Race" in which this photo was first published, the "wiphala" is a rainbow-colored checkerboard flag that serves as a transnational symbol of indigenous identity for peoples throughout the Andes. I've seen it as far noth as Ecuador and as far south as Argentina. It's not a "national" symbol. It's nothing unusual that the marching band in the photo is wearing hats in blue-and-white Argentine national colors while also carrying the wiphala. (I took this picture at a local festival in Tilcara, Argentina, although the exhibition catalog erroneously labels it as being from La Paz, Bolivia.)
I just received my copy of the Disobedient Objects catalog, and it looks like a fascinating show. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to see it in person. I was in the UK when it opened, but was only in central and northern England and Scotland, and didn't get anywhere near London.
(Yes, there are international gateways to the UK other than those serving London and the South-East of England. We arrived in Hull by ferry from Rotterdam, and left from Manchester Airport. Manchester is the largest airport in the UK other than those serving London, and has the best direct mainline rail connections to other cities of any UK airport. There are direct trains, many of which carry bicycles, between Manchester Airport and cities throughout northen England and as far as Glasgow and Edinburgh.)
The V&A describes itself, with an Anglocentric imperial pomposity befitting its monarchist name, as "The world's greatest museum of art and design". Art? No. Graphic, architectural, and other genres of design? Maybe. Given that I worked for a decade in graphics and print production, it's perhaps no surprise that the V&A is my favorite London museum.
At least for me, the V&A is always worth a visit., and this show looks especially interesting. If you're in London between now and next February 1st, check it out.
Friday, 8 August 2014
US DOT defers ruling on airline plans for personalized pricing
Late Thursday, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) quietly released its decision on an arcane-seeming but critically important request for DOT regulatory approval of airlines' plans for a transition from published tariffs of airfares to personalized airline ticket pricing.
DOT's missed an opprtunity to use its decisioon in this rulemaming to remind airlines that personalized pricing is illegal. But DOT was careful to confine its ruling to the permissible portion of the airlines' proposal, a new airline-designed XML protocol for communications related to ticket prices between airlines, travel agencies, and third parties.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had requested US DOT approval of a resolution adopted by IATA's member airlines in October 2012. IATA Resolution 787 is a vision statement of "high-level objectives" -- not a blueprint or specification -- for a so-called "New Distribution Capability" (NDC) for the sale of airline tickets.
DOT's decision is framed as an "approval" of IATA's request for "approval of Resolution 787". But DOT made very clear, in response to objections from consumers and consumer advocates (including myself, Assoc. Prof. Ben Edelman of the Harvard Business School, and dozens of individuals who submitted comments to DOT endorsing our objections), that DOT is not green-lighting and has not yet considered the legality of any of the new business models (e.g. personalized pricing) which these communications protocols are intended to support, and which are "envisioned" by IATA Resolution 787.
IATA is no longer formally a price-fixing cartel, and now claims that its coordinating role as a trade association of airlines is limited to setting standards. But because of the historic role of IATA "Traffic Conferences" in fixing industry-standard fares, which required explicit exemption from some antitrust rules, IATA is still subject to a degree of DOT oversight.
By submitting Resolution 787 for DOT approval, IATA hoped to get DOT pre-approval for its personalized-pricing business-model vision, before beginning to invest in the infrastructure to support it. That's exactly what the DOT declined to do, limiting its approval to what IATA had explcitly described and requested: airline collusion on XML pricing-message standards.
A few years ago, IATA would probbaly have gotten rubber-stamp approval from the lapdogs at DOT for everything it asked for. The limitations on the scope of DOT's approval of IATA Resolution 787 are testament both to the importance of organized organized lobbying by travellers, and of the greater (although still limied) willingness of the DOT to exercise meaningful oversight and challaneg at least some anti-consumer airline practices.
In a press release following DOT's decision, IATA claimed that "the path [is] now clear to begin to implement NDC". But while that is what airlines had hoped for, that's not what they got from DOT. If airlines proceed with these plans, or with investments in preparatory work toward them, they do so at their own risk, with no assurance that DOT will approve changes in pricing systems.
IATA's press release suggests, however, that airlines intend to go ahead with development of their "New Distribution Capability" and transition to personalized pricing with or without any assurance that they can get the DOT to approve it (or refrain from enforcing the existing laws against it), or that they will be able to get Congress to repeal those laws. The fight to preserve the status of airlines as common carriers, and to preserve the benefits to consumers of requirements for common carriers to sell tickets in accordance with published fare tariffs, will continue.
IATA tries to reassure travellers that an airline will still make an "offer" to sell you a ticket even if you decline to provide any personal information. But if they are freed from their current legal duty as a common carrier to base that offer on a publiushered tariff of fares, they could make the asking price of their offer"to any anonymous customer arbitrarily and prohibitvely high.
A recent study commissioned by the Amadeus computerized reservation system found that using the informaiton already available to airlines to personalize "offers" could result in, on average, EUR35 (roughly US$50) in additional revenue -- i.e. higher prices -- per passenger.
That's bad enough, but the real damage would come if airlines start using larger amounts of aggregated personal data from third-party data brokers as the basis for personalized pricing. Repeal or nonenforcment of common-carrier tariff requirments and legalization of personalized pricing would create a competitive race to the bottom for airlines to learn as much about passengers as possible, to detemine how much each trip you plan to take is worth to you, or to subscribe to pricing services that can obtain and mine that data.
The elephant waiting quietly in the lobby of the personalized-pricing debate is, of course, Google, which already owns an airline reservations and ticket price information division. Google has kept silent about IATA Resolutiuon 787. But the prohibition on personalized pricing has held back Google's ability to apply its core personalized-pricing expertise to airline tickets. What company has more information about each trip you plan to take than the one that can analyze all your Gmail messages and Web searches? It would be difficult for any other price-personalizing company to compete with Google in such a marketplace for pricing services. Approval of personalized airline ticket pricing is the key prerequisite for Google to recover and realize a return on its US$700 million investment in ITA Software.
Monday, 28 July 2014
Speaking at SXSW Eco in Austin, 6-8 Oct. 2014
I've accepted an invitation to speak at the South By Southwest Eco conference on sustainability in Austin, TX, 6-8 October 2014:
The aviation industry hopes to obtain enough cheap biofuel to sustain air travel without diverting land, water, or labor from food production. But what if that proves impossible?
One doesn't have to predict a doomsday scenario of global warming to imagine a future of dramatically more expensive (and/or rationed or taxed) air travel.
What disruptions would that bring to patterns of travel and development? Travel is intertwined with every sector of the economy. How would trade and development maps be redrawn by changes in travel modes and speeds? What people, places, and investments would stand to win or lose? How can we prepare for this possible future?
Will we see a resurgence of passenger shipping, for example, and what would that mean? Will both vacations and business trips become longer in duration? How will slower travel affect the travel experience and the travel industry? These are only a few of the key questions to be explored in this brief exercise in travel futurism.
More details to come. I'm excited to be a part of this SXSW event, and hope to see some of you there.
Sunday, 1 June 2014
T-Mobile USA international roaming prices
I've leaving tonight for two months in at least six countries in Europe. I'm taking my smartphone, and I plan to use it the same way I do in the USA, maybe more.
That's a big change.
Most cellphone and wireless data prices for international roaming have been, and still are, prohibitive.
What I've said in my books and my more recent series in 2012 on smartphones and digital maps for international travel (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) is still true: If you have a suitable (unlocked, multiband, GSM) cellphone, you can get a local SIM card in most countries with reasonable rates for voice calls, and in some cases for wireless data, while you are in that one country. You can even get some SIM cards optimized for global roaming, with much higher but not terrible rates for voice calls in many countries.
But until recently, international roaming data charges have been prohibitive. Travelling from country to country to country with a smartphone has been a recipe for extreme sticker shock. I've heard from people who've gotten bills of thousands of U.S. dollars a week for using a Blackberry while abroad the way they do at home.
It's common to find that smartphone apps running in the background, or that you thought were "on the phone", are running up data charges without your knowing it. Voice translation apps, for example, typically send audio clips to a central server, rather than translating them on the phone. How much use is a translation app you can't afford to use while abroad?
Here's a survey of how much data your phone might send and receive if you use it abroad the way you do at home, and how much that might cost with the largest US wireless voice and data carriers.
The European Union has begun to legislate caps on wireless roaming charges, but these EU rules only apply to subscribers travelling and making calls between EU member countries.
Recently T-Mobile USA has introduced some dramatically different "Simple Choice International" subscription plans that allow (a) unmetered moderate-speed wireless data (you get a limited amount of data transmission at the highest speed, after which it is somewhat reduced) and (b) US$0.20 per minute voice roaming in more than 100 countries for a flat monthly price of about US$50 plus taxes for a single line or somewhat less for multiple lines on a family account.
I was skeptical that there would be some hidden fee (besides the usual taxes) or additional cost. But I've gotten the T-Mobile bills from my trip to Switzerland, Belgium, and the UK with my smartphone in March, and there no charges for international data roaming, including tethering my laptop to my phone to access the Internet when the wi-fi at the City Hostel in Geneva wasn't working. Incoming and outgoing voice calls to and from numbers in the countries I was visiting, other EU countries, and the USA were billed at only US$0.20 per minute plus the expected additional charges for calls to European cellphone numbers. (In most of the world, unlike the USA, the caller, not the recipient, pays the extra fee for calls to mobile phones.)
If there was any surprise, it's that I wasn't charged more than had been advertised.
Most people in the USA don't have passports and never travel abroad, so international roaming is a niche market in the USA. It remains to be seen whether other companies will try to compete with T-Mobile USA in this niche.
For now, however, I know of no wireless international roaming data plan offered by any carrier in the world that is remotely competitive with T-Mobile USA's current "Simple Choice International" plans. These are the first, and so far the only, plans that let you use wireless data services in many -- not all -- foreign countries, the same way you do at home. If you know of other such plans, please leave a comment.
T-Mobile's tariff contains vague terms that allow the company to cut off your service if you use it disproportionately abroad, and not in the USA. I had no problem travelling abroad for two weeks, after being a T-Mobile USA customer for years. I don't know what T-Mobile USA would do if you opened a new account on one of these plans for a trip around the world, left the USA, and used your T-Mobile USA SIM exclusively abroad for months as a time. If you've tried it, leave a comment about how long you were abroad and how it worked out.
T-Mobile USA was founded and is still owned primarily by the German national phone company Deutsche Telekom. Deutsche Telekom has been trying for years to sell its share of T-Mobile USA, and it's unclear how a sale or merger might affect T-Mobile USA's pricing for international roaming.
Saturday, 31 May 2014
Bill Dalton on "The Founding of Moon Publications"
Many large publishers started as self-publishing ventures by individual writers, but that pattern is especially dominant in publishers of guidebooks for independent international travellers.
Arthur Frommer ("Europe on $5 A Day"), Tony and Maureen Wheeler (Lonely Planet), Hilary and Geoge Bradt (Bradt Travel Guides), and Bill Dalton (Indonesia Handbook and later Moon Handbooks) are only a few of the guidebook publishers who started as self-publishers.
Bill Dalton has a fascinating 3-part account of The Founding of Moon Publications this week in Moon's blog.
I signed the publication contract for the first edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World in 1995 with Bill Dalton's successor as Moon's publisher, Bill Newlin. Since then Moon Publications has become part of Avalon Travel Publishing and then the Perseus Books Group, but Bill Newlin is still the publisher.
We've had our differences over the years, but we're still friends, and I'm still proud to be part of the family of authors and the continuing tradition of the guidebook series that Bill Dalton founded.
Friday, 30 May 2014
My objections to airlines' plan to "personalize" prices
Today I filed formal objections to U.S. Department of of Transportation's tentative decision to approve a proposal from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to replace publicly-disclosed tariffs of airfares with "personalized" airline ticket prices.
Most of the initial objections to IATA's proposal came from within the travel industry. These squabbles over the spoils were resolved by a settlement agreement between airlines, travel agencies, and data hosting(CRS/GDS) companies.
DOT has given tentative approval to that "settlement". But neither the "settlement" nor DOT's tentative decision address the concerns of travellers and ticket purchasers.
For example, DOT proposes to require airline to "offer" tickets to anonymous customers. But airlines would be allowed to make that offer, and the price of anonymity, as high as they like.
And if the airline somehow learns -- whether or not you tell them -- that you are desperate to get to your dying mother's bedside? The airline can make its "offer" as high as it likes.
The "settlement" between airlines and other travel companies leaves my objections on consumer protection grounds as the only remaining obstacle to DOT approval of this scheme.
Tuesday, 27 May 2014
"Can I see what information the feds have on my travel?"
Ars Techica editor and technology journalist Cyrus Fariva reports today on the initial response to his Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for CBP’s records about his travel history, including CBP’s copies of airline Passenger Name Records (PNRs):
"You got 72 pages of shit, to put it crudely," he said, explaining that the CBP didn’t give me the crown jewel of what I asked for: my own PNR records. His own PNR records, as he demonstrated in 2009, included far more detailed information, including the IP address used when he booked an airline ticket.
"Why they didn’t include that when you explicitly asked for it, I can’t tell you,” he added. Hasbrouck agreed with Crump’s assessment that the agency’s lack of response was to be expected. "It’s completely erratic. Some people get just the PNR and not the entry and exit data. Whether it’s gross incompetence, malign neglect, or if they’re overworked, whether it’s that they don’t understand the nature of what the data is—[it] suggests that the people doing the redacting don’t know what the data is."
I've posted forms and instructions on how to request your travel records. Please let me know if you’d like help interpreting responses.
Wednesday, 21 May 2014
US Dept. of Transportation OKs "personalized" airline ticket prices
In a potentially disastrous administrative decision, the US Department of Transportation has "tentatively" approved a proposal from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to replace publicly-disclosed tariffs of airfares with "personalized" airline ticket prices.
We are tentatively not convinced by Mr. Hasbrouck’s allegations that customized pricing offers would be illegal because statutory and regulatory provisions still prohibit carriers from charging any price not contained in publicly disclosed, published tariffs, notwithstanding the fact that the Department has exempted carriers from officially filing such tariffs with the Department. The clause in 49 U.S.C. § 41510 under which carriers are to charge only prices identical to those in the tariff "in effect for such transportation" presumed filing of those tariffs with the Department under § 41504 as part of a comprehensive economic regulatory regime. Domestic tariff filing was terminated by the Deregulation Act of 1978. With progressive liberalization of international air services, including implementation of over 100 open skies agreements, the Department has, under § 40109© and 14 CFR Part 293, progressively exempted carriers from filing tariffs in liberalized international markets.
The DOT's tentative decision is framed as an order which "direct[s] all interested persons to show cause why the Department should not approve IATA Resolution 787, incorporated in the agreement in Docket OST-2013-0048, subject to the conditions enumerated in the Appendix... Objections or comments to our tentative findings and conclusions shall be filed no later than 21 days from the issuance date of this order. Answers to objections shall be due no later than seven business days thereafter."
I will be filing detailed objections, and invite and encourage others to do likewise. You can submit comments here until 11 June 2014, either by filling in a Web form or by attaching a PDF or word processing document file.
Here are links to some of my previous commentary on this issue:
- Comments to the US Dept. of Transportation on airline pricing (21 February 2014)
- Airlines claim they are already allowed to "personalize" prices (28 August 2013)
- What's wrong with the airlines' proposal for "personalized" ticket prices? (30 April 2013)
- IATA announces plan for personalized airline ticket prices (2 November 2012)
- Airline ticket price transparency (26 January 2011)
- Are common carriers allowed to "personalize" prices? (20 May 2010)
[Update, 30 May 2014: I've filed formal objections to DOT's tentative decision. You can still go to Regulations.gov and submit your own comments until 11 June 2014. More details.]
Sunday, 18 May 2014
The Amazing Race 24, Episode 12
Cheshire, England (UK) - Las Vegas, NV (USA) - Henderson, NV (USA) - Las Vegas, NV (USA)
At the conclusion of The Amazing Race 24, one member of each pair of racers had to jump out of a helicopter and parachute (in tandem with an instructor/guide) onto the infield of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Earlier in this leg of the race, one member of each team was handcuffed and chained inside a wooden crate that was hoisted into the air, set on fire, and then dropped into a bonfire while they tried to "escape".
No members of the cast were harmed in the filming of this episode. This bit of "reality television" was a play-within-a-play, with the racers playing the part of volunteers picked from the audience at one of the Las Vegas shows staged by the illusionist David Copperfield.
The people we are watching on The Amazing Race are members of the cast of a television show, performing under carefully constructed and controlled conditions. Off camera, stagehands and special effects producers and safety personnel are standing by.
Getting visitors to disconnect fantasy from reality -- so that they don't think about the fact that they are losing real money at the gambling tables and in the slot machines -- is central to Las Vegas' business model. Unfortunately, it's also a temptation in other locales where the opportunity to engage in dangerous "adventure" or "extreme sports" activities is a major attraction for visitors.
Tourists ourselves are also to blame. We want to put our everyday cares aside when we travel, and we want to imagine that we have walked into a "real-world" fantasy or onto a movie set, where the normal rules of physics and mortality don't apply.
The canonical case of where this leads may have been the disaster in which eighteen backpacker tourists and three canyoneering guides were killed in a flash flood in a gorge near Saxeten, Switzerland, in 1999.
Six supervisors and managers of the adventure tour company that organized the excursions were eventually convicted of manslaughter by negligence. But that verdict didn't magically bring anyone back to life, and the incident also shows the danger of relying on a tour company to judge the safety of activities in which your life, and not just theirs, will be at risk.
If David Copperfield picks you from the audience at one of his shows, you can probably play along with some confidence that he's not really going to saw you in half, even if it might appear that way to your friends who are watching the illusion.
But when you are travelling, it's not a staged illusion, and there is no "magic", the lesson of Saxeten is that -- as I've discussed during previous seasons of The Amazing Race -- you can't assume that an activity is safe just because "Everybody is doing it" and it's organized and promoted by a reputable-seeming tour company.
If a tour operator makes you sign a waiver of liability before you take part in some activity, that means they aren't responsible if something does wrong. That doesn't mean that you should back out, but it does mean that it's up to you to make your own judgment as to whether it's sufficiently safe or worth the risk.
You can have plenty of travel fun and excitement without risking life and limb for your thrills. As host and master of ceremonies Phil Keoghan says to the cast at the starting line for each season of The Amazing Race, "Travel safe!"