The New York Times has an important story today on the issue of the Passenger Name Record (PNR) and the role that it can play as a data input into the aviation screening system, in the wake of the foiled UK terror plot. The proposals discussed in the story seem to go beyond the currently-planned uses of PNR data, envisioning a broader system of data analysis using the PNR information, perhaps with a direct hook into the major Computerized Reservation Systems (e.g. Sabre, Galileo, Amadeus) that are the core information nodes of the global travel system:
A proposal by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would allow the United States government not only to look for known terrorists on watch lists, but also to search broadly through the passenger itinerary data to identify people who may be linked to terrorists, he said in a recent interview.
Similarly, European leaders are considering seeking access to this same database, which contains not only names and addresses of travelers, but often their credit card information, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and related hotel or car reservations.
….â€œIdeally, I would like to know, did Mohamed Atta get his ticket paid on the same credit card,â€ Mr. Chertoff said, citing the lead hijacker of the 2001 plots. â€œThat would be a huge thing. And I really would like to know that in advance, because that would allow us to identify an unknown terrorist.â€
Would there be direct security benefits from this type of analysis? Absolutely. Will the privacy loss from this outweigh its benefit? That depends, based upon different individual and national privacy values (and some people would object to the concept of even quantifying this). Are there ways to do this that are less invasive in terms of individual privacy? Definitely, including data anonymization and a system where individual countries and the reservation systems conduct data analysis themselves and share only the ‘hits’ against common watch list and indicators databases, without having to share the full stream of unwashed PNR data.
Update (8/23): More on this issue from Ryan Singel at 27BStroke6.