British Airways have announced a new computer system initiative that allows ground staff and cabin crew to find pictures of passengers online so they can immediately recognise them. Under the ‘Know Me’ programme staff will be given iPads and encouraged to search Google images to find pictures of passengers so they can approach them as they arrive at the terminal or plane.
London’s Evening Standard reports "BA staff will also search individual data held by the airline, including if a regular traveller has experienced problems on previous flights, such as delays, so that crew are primed to apologise."
The announcement has inevitably been met with some consternation by those who feel uneasy about the airline searching and using passengers’ images without their consent. Nick Pickles of privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch said that, under current data protection laws, BA would require such consent to justify them processing their online images.
There are however lawful grounds for processing an individual’s personal data that BA may be able to rely on. Under the Data Protection Act (DPA), personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully and for specific, explicit and legitimate purposes only. Organisations must meet at least one of the “legitimising conditions” under the DPA in order to process an individuals’ personal data, such as having obtained individuals’ consent to do so. Other lawful grounds for processing that do not require consent include where it is necessary for the performance of a contract, necessary in order to protect the “vital interests of the data subject” or where it is necessary “for the administration of justice”.
BA could obviously remedy this by asking for the customers’ consent to carry out such processes when they book their flights. Nonetheless, it could be argued that it is in BA’s legitimate interests to process online images of passengers without their consent and, as BA states, this is what allows it to offer the best experience to its customers.
The DPA does require, however, that any avenue of justification down this route will need to be balanced with the rights of passengers. The Act states that such processing must not be “unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.”
BA’s new scheme will not be the first time that an airline has taken to online digging in order to find information on its passengers. In 2010 the Dutch airline KLM monitored tweets of passengers stuck at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam after the Icelandic ash cloud grounded planes, for example taking water to passengers who tweeted they were thirsty.