British Airways’ announcement that it plans to start doing Google image searches of some customers so its staff can greet them by name isn’t sitting well with privacy advocates. “Since when has buying a flight ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you on the Internet?”, the delightfully named Nick Pickles of UK-based privacy group Big Brother Watch griped to the London Evening Standard.Hard to find that too objectionable compared to everything else companies do these days with data we not only don't control, but don't even have a full grasp of what it even is.
I’d say it has always meant that, Mr. Pickles, since I’ve never heard of any law requiring anyone to get permission before Googling someone. Even so, the privacy backlash does suggest that we draw a line between computers tracking us and actual people tracking us. Most of us seem to be OK with websites installing cookies on our computers so they can recall our preferences (language, region, password, and so forth). And while a few of us may still have qualms about Google’s computers scanning our emails to serve us personalized ads, most seem to have accepted even this level of automated intrusion. But when a stewardess looks up publicly available information, we get queasy in a hurry.
As far as I can tell, British Airways is being open and honest about what it’s doing. The purpose of its “Know Me” program, according to a press release, is “to collate a wealth of data from every experience the customer has with the airline and translate that into meaningful service for that individual.”
Having said that, this may be the difference between privacy in Europe and (the lack of) privacy in America. The fact that this kind of things sets off warning bells to privacy advocates in Europe may not simply mean that they're a bit anal. It might just mean that Europe, or at the least the UK, has a much healthier concern (or expectation) about an individual's privacy than those of us across the Atlantic.