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Employers check Facebook for staff; now, airlines Google passengers

Employers check Facebook for staff; now, airlines Google passengers

Posting in Technology

British Airways has come under fire after the practice of Googling their passengers came to light.

I used to travel a lot. Working for a company that usually sends you to a different country every week, I was used to hanging around airports, drinking extortionately-priced coffee at every hour, and eventually being herded into an aircraft.

I always managed to sit near a screaming child, and tried to drown out the advertisements on speaker enticing me to buy perfume or bourbon though my iPod. However, what if a member of staff offered me a product based on my personal preferences -- based on information they'd found online? Or perhaps commented on a recent article I'd written?

The idea, reported by the Telegraph, is apparently underway at British Airways. The airline is worried about lacking in personalized service -- especially for high-profile passengers -- so approximately 2,000 members of staff have been given access to passenger data through an application called "Know me".

Through iPads, staff can search details including a customer's travel and complaint history, Google images to find and recognize a passenger, and using the search engine to track down any information available online about the customer.

The idea is to liken BA's customer service to that of a familiar, favourite restaurant -- where customers are greeted and feel like they are individuals -- rather than simply a ticket number.

However, the idea of making customer searches has raised eyebrows for privacy groups. Nick Pickles, director of privacy group Big Brother Watch, said:

"This goes to show that major international companies now recognise the best way to find out personal information about its customers is to ask Google. Fundamentally, British Airways have not asked their passengers' permission to search Google to find their picture or any other information."

British Airways is reported as hoping to greet around 4,500 passengers this way per day by the end of the year. A spokesperson defended the scheme, stating that by finding out more detailed and personal information about customers flying with them, BA will be able to deal with complaints more efficiently. They said:

"The most recent advancement of the system enables the British Airways team to search Google Images for a photo of specific customers, so they can recognise them as soon as they enter the airport or aircraft and proactively approach them."

The Know Me scheme must comply with the UK's Data Protection Act, and will be used in relation to BA's 'high-profile' travellers, as the sheer numbers of economy passengers would be nigh-on impossible to search and remember.

Image credit: Flickr

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure