08 July 2012

I'm with stupid

UK newspapers such as the Daily Mail and civil society groups such as Big Brother Watch are criticising plans by British Airways for an iPad-based “Know Me” initiative that will use Google Images searches to find photos of passengers so that staff can approach them as they arrive at plane or terminal. The initiative will include staff going beyond 'name and seat number' details; they will reportedly search customer complaint and other customer-specific information held by BA.

BA's Head of Customer Analysis is quoted as commenting that
 We’re essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favourite restaurant when you’re welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers. This is just the start — the system has a myriad of possibilities for the future.
Quite so, and not all benign. Is the next stage an integration with biometric data?

Another BA spokesman is reported as stating that
The most recent advancement of the system enables the British Airways team to search Google images for a photo of specific customers so they can recognise them and proactively approach them. The airline is aiming to send 4,500 personal recognition messages a day by the end of the year.
There is unfortunately no readily identifiable description of the initiative on the BA site.

Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch aptly commented
Since when has buying a flight ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you on the internet?
If British Airways want more information about us they can ask us for it, rather than ignoring people’s privacy and storing data without us having any idea what data they are storing.
It's hard not to wonder whether BA's marketing and legal staff have simply slept through the latest wave of announcements about notions of consent in EU privacy law. Just because you can do it does not mean something's correct ... and an upbeat statement about the development of an airborne maƮtre d' is unpersuasive.

BA is reported as responding that
We are entirely compliant with the UK Data Protection Act and would never breach that. Know Me is simply another tool to enable us to offer good customer service, similar to the recognition that high street loyalty scheme members expect. 
The Google Images search app helps our customer service team to recognise high profile travellers such as captains of industry who would be using our First Class facilities enabling us to give a more personalised service.
So far there appears to have been no statement from the UK Information Commissioner.