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Small-Aircraft Stalking Trumps Privacy in FAA Plan: Commentary
Published on Bloomberg Government on March 11, 2011
Every day, millions of Americans travel from place to place by car, train, bus and airplane, all with the expectation that our government won’t use the technology it has to track them to broadcast their movements.
The government has traditionally honored that expectation. After all, just
because the government collects the information doesn’t mean it should be made public so anyone with a computer
connection may track citizens’ movements.
Federal agencies gather, but don’t disclose, information about drivers using E-Z Pass on the nation’s highways, or from government-owned GPS satellites. It’s illegal for the airlines or Amtrak to publish the passenger manifests they make available to government. And information stored in government databases on consumers’ credit card and cell-phone use is protected from public view.
So it comes as a surprise that the federal government has signaled its intent to sidestep privacy safeguards when it comes to the small general-aviation airplanes used for business and recreational transport.
Last week the Federal Aviation Administration announced plans to effectively eliminate a program, known as the Block Aircraft Registration Request. The BARR permits American individuals and company owners of private aircraft to block their tail-number identifiers from being viewed by unknown parties using online tracking services. The FAA’s proposed rule would limit BARR to only those individuals and companies with a known and very specific security threat.
This is a ridiculously high standard, since people with ill intent rarely notify their victims before the perpetration of a crime. The individuals and companies that utilize the BARR program are upset to learn that the government wants to broadcast their private movements to anyone, anywhere, who has access to the Internet.
The BARR is a congressionally enabled program that has been in place for more than a decade. It allows relevant government and law-enforcement agencies to have information on the aircrafts’ flights. It also keeps those with suspect motives from tracking the flights because, in our instant-information era, there are valid privacy, security and competitive reasons why U.S. citizens and companies may want to prevent unknown third parties from electronically stalking their movements.
In proposing to forbid all but a few aircraft from utilizing the BARR, the government is ushering in an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of aircraft owners and operators, a threat to the competitiveness of U.S. companies and a potential security risk to persons on board general aviation airplanes.
Homeland Security Alert
No less than an authority than the nation’s Department of Homeland Security has issued an alert based on web postings that urge followers to identify and destroy U.S.-based “small jet aircraft usually used by distinguished people and businessmen.” How can the same government that issued the alert think it’s a good idea to broadcast the location and movements of those airplanes and the people aboard?
Equally troubling, the government’s plan needlessly exposes American companies to competitive vulnerabilities. At a time when U.S. companies are struggling to compete and create jobs in a global marketplace, the government should not facilitate corporate espionage by allowing any overseas competitor with computer access to track companies’ movements.
Perhaps most unsettling is the idea that making public the private movements of people and companies – against their will – puts the government on a very slippery slope. If federal agencies decide it’s all right to broadcast information on the private movements of general aviation airplanes flying in federal airspace, what will stop the government from giving out information on the private movements of automobiles operating on federal highways with an E-Z Pass?
The risks and unintended consequences of such a scenario should give any citizen pause, whether or not they have ever stepped on an airplane.
Fortunately, the government’s decision to dramatically curtail the BARR program is only tentative, and citizens have a 30-day opportunity to comment on the plan. Our association has provided administrative support for the program at no cost, taking requests from anyone using general aviation for business, and forwarding the requests to the FAA. We will file comments strenuously objecting to the government’s proposal.
We can be certain that everyone exercising the right to comment will also urge the government to uphold its responsibilities.
Our privacy as citizens is a fundamental right. When the sanctity of citizens’ private conduct is threatened by the use of information technology, government’s job is to protect the information on the individual, not facilitate an intrusion.
Ed Bolen is president and chief executive officer of the National Business Aviation Association in Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Rapp at [email protected].