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Outrage over data privacy breach

DAVID FIELD / WASHINGTON DC

US airlines are enmeshed in a major privacy debate after Northwest Airlines admitted it transferred confidential passenger data to researchers developing security screening programmes. The public outrage threatens to delay the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS) II project, and may limit airline participation in the already controversial security scheme.

Northwest may have handed over as many as 10 million passenger name records for July-September 2001 to NASA, which was working under contract to the US Department of Transportation. NASA planned to develop "data mining" computer programs to analyse passenger lists, compare them with other lists such as consumer credit records and develop a way to identify potentially suspicious passengers for further screening.

Outrage also followed the revelation last September that JetBlue had handed over as many as 1 million records to a private contractor doing similar work for the US Department of Defense. NASA officials have since said that data mining was not as promising an approach as it first seemed, but the public outrage is growing nevertheless.

Facing lawsuits and complaints from regulators, Northwest chief executive Richard Anderson has called on the US Air Transport Association to develop new privacy standards in the wake of the furore.

But the incident also has wide-reaching implications for the future of airline co-operation, with the government development of passenger screening technologies. Although some carriers have already been reluctant to transfer confidential data, the government still intends to go ahead with the CAPPS II project, but has not set a date for implementation.

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