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BA Googles passengers: Friendlier flights or invasion of privacy?

By Tim Hume, CNN
updated 6:02 AM EDT, Wed August 22, 2012
BA's Know Me customer service program allows airline staff to search Google for images of passengers on their iPads.
BA's Know Me customer service program allows airline staff to search Google for images of passengers on their iPads.
  • BA customer-service program involves staff searching Google for images of VIP passengers
  • The airline says its Know Me program will allow for more personalized, friendly service
  • Privacy groups say the airline should not be searching the internet for customer information
  • BA says it will only be used for VIPs, and it has had no complaints

London (CNN) -- Senior business figures and other VIP travelers face a new type of scrutiny when flying, with BA's move to search Google Images to identify high-profile frequent fliers.

The measure is part of the British Airways "Know Me" program, which aims to provide a more personalized service to the airline's frequent fliers.

In the words of BA's head of customer analysis, Jo Boswell, the airline is aiming "to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favorite restaurant when you're welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers."

The program works by pulling together information on frequent travelers -- including seating location, previous flights and meal choices -- into a streamlined database which, along with Google Images, is accessed on iPads issued to staff on all BA flights and in the airline's lounges.

The idea is that BA staff will be able to offer a more tailored service to customers. If, for example, a connecting flight has been delayed, stewards or lounge staff can use the database to see which passengers are most affected, then identify them by seat number or by Google searching their image to address them personally.

Since when has buying a flight ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you on the internet?
Emma Carr, deputy director of Big Brother Watch

The airline says it will also allow staff to provide better service by greeting travelers with an apology if there have been issues with their previous flights, for example.

The new approach has concerned some privacy watchdogs, who label it an unnecessary intrusion. "Since when has buying a flight ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you on the internet?" said Emma Carr, deputy director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch.

"Fundamentally, British Airways have not asked their passengers' permission to take part in this scheme. Surely, if they want to search Google to find pictures and any other information all they have to do is ask?"

Read more: Meet Elvis -- the virtual border official who knows if you're lying

But BA spokesman Philip Allport said staff would only search for images of high profile, VIP travelers -- most of whom would appreciate the more attentive, personalized service it provided.

"Let's the say you're the chairman of HSBC and you're traveling in first class with us and we need to convey a message to you," he said. "They can approach him discretely."

That approach was preferable to calling VIPs via a public announcement over the speakers in the lounge -- "not necessarily what people want when they're high profile and they're traveling," he said.

The information's already there -- this is just a way of drawing it together
BA spokesman Philip Allport

"There would be no reason why we would want to search for an average passenger."

Privacy campaigners have expressed concern about the amount of information held by airlines, particularly when that data is shared with other agencies. But Allport said he was unaware of any complaints about Know Me in the 18 months since it had first been trialled.

"It collects information on passengers that we have anyway," he said. "The information's already there -- this is just a way of drawing it together."

What do you think about BA searching Google for images of its passengers?

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