British Airways idea to use Google Images to identify high profile passengers sparks privacy concerns

British Airways iPadA new British Airways scheme has sparked controversy, as the airline has announced plans to search for pictures of its passengers using Google Images.

The scheme goes by the name of “Know Me,” and the idea is for staff to be able to recognize high profile passengers as they arrive, so they can be greeted personally and any issues they may have had in the past can be addressed straight away.

Google Images will be searched using an iPad, which British Airways has recently announced it will be supplying to various members of staff.

An example given by BA of how Know Me will benefit travelers, is that a passenger flying in a new class for the first time could be welcomed appropriately, then given a rundown of everything that’s new, all without having to approach a member of staff.

Passenger’s pictures would also be matched to existing profiles, which already contain details on previous and future travel plans, meal requirements and other, normal customer information.

The airline’s customer analysis head told the Evening Standard they were “trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favorite restaurant when you’re welcomed there.”

Privacy fears

Not everyone thinks it’s such a good idea though, and the director of privacy campaigners Big Brother Watch said “surely if BA want more information about us they can simply ask for it,” and added in a quote to the Evening Standard “since when has buying a ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you in the Internet?”

Perennial fear-mongers The Daily Mail called the service “profiling” and accused BA of “snooping.” Comments on the article included calls to boycott the airline and accusations of BA breaking the Data Protection Act.

British Airways denies it’s doing anything wrong, and told InformationAge.com “it would never use data in a way that was contrary to the Act.”

So which is it? A harmless way to help cabin crew say “welcome onboard Mr. Smith, will you want the vegetarian meal today?” Or is it a thinly veiled plot to build up a database of the airline’s richest and most notable passengers?

The trouble is, for all those up in arms about Know Me, Googling for a picture isn’t a crime. The problem seems to lie with British Airways not asking for permission to search for and subsequently use information from the web.

In turn, anyone who posts images online, outside of a secure area such as a private social networking account, should be aware they can be found by anyone able to use a search engine.

Why not use social media?

British Airways may have been able to avoid this backlash at what is, hopefully, an innocent plan to build relationships with its high-paying customers, by looking at the way the financial sector is embracing social media.

Morgan Stanley has been allowing its advisers to connect with clients through LinkedIn, where an individual relationship can then be maintained. Private messages and updates aren’t allowed, but pre-approved public updates are, and according to the firm’s head of social media, the system “really works” and advisers are gaining more business.

By employing a similar strategy, British Airways would gain access to the only picture that counts — the actual person’s face — rather than Google Images’ often hit or miss results, and have avoided all the privacy concerns, as connections have to be approved.

The airline expects to greet 4,500 passengers using the Know Me service by the end of the year, unless it’s forced to alter its plans in the meantime.