BARR and the State of Privacy
Imagine driving home when you hear your name on the radio:
"...and our next caller is looking for Michael Harris, license BFG-277. He just passed the Kennedy tollbooth, and three minutes ago a traffic camera spotted him on Broadway. He's made this trip every evening for 10 years – home, to 1020 Bell Street...... On to our next caller, who asks, 'Is my boss still making weekly trips to her psychotherapist?' Before we answer, we break for station identification: You are listening to Highway Patrol Public Radio, bringing transparency to government since 1997."
Sound far fetched? Believe it or not, this station exists, only it's not the highway patrol outing drivers over FM, it's the FAA broadcasting aircraft movements over the internet, in a datastream called the ASDI or Aircraft Situation Display to Industry. Airlines use it to track their fleets, but it is also the data source behind websites that publish flight histories for private aircraft. Anyone can tune in to keep tabs on a pilot and everywhere he or she flies.
But the ASDI system has an optional protection system called Block Aircraft Registration Request or BARR. This allows any airplane owner to block the broadcast of their information.
The public was unaware of the BARR until 2008, when the Big Three auto executives flew to Washington in private jets, begging with hat in hand. When the public couldn't uncover their flight histories using the internet, they demanded to know: How can these jerks block their flights from public view? The better question is: Why is it so easy to monitor someone else's travel in the first place? Does the public have a right to this information? Thus arose a furious debate about whether the government should allow public access to ASDI, without benefit of blocking.
The Department of Transportation said "yes" on May 27 when it quietly issued a press release announcing the end of the BARR program. Said Secretary LaHood: "This action is in keeping with the Obama administration's commitment to transparency in government. Both general aviation and commercial aircraft use the public airspace and air traffic control facilities, and the public has a right to information about their activities."
What he didn't say is that essentially all government aircraft will remain blocked--even non-military aircraft, including the DOT jets he uses--and that virtually every letter submitted during the proposal's public comment period condemned it on privacy grounds.
But nonetheless, many agree with his government transparency argument--the FAA tracks every flight using air traffic control, so the FAA must publish those records on the internet. Proponents say it's necessary to keep tabs on corporations, to smoke out those who receive federal bailouts, then jet off for a ski weekend on the company dime. But is it any solution for the FAA to publish every company's travel calendar? We do not search everyone's home because there is a thief in the neighborhood.
Public corporations are not open books. Some flights really are as sensitive as their merger activities, and most companies do document their fleet use in annual reports. If not, shareholders can require they do so. Misuse of company aircraft is no different than misuse of any company asset, but the problem is better addressed through corporate governance than the wholesale monitoring of every company's travel.
But aircraft monitoring does not shine a light on corporations alone. The DOT and monitoring proponents contend that publishing an airplane's movements does not disclose who is in that airplane, because that information is protected by mountains of law. Yet aircraft records are listed by owner name on the FAA website, and half of them belong to individuals. This includes me, the owner of a BARR-protected single-engine airplane, which I pay for out of pocket and use exclusively for personal travel.
Should my travel history be any more open than someone in their car, or on a commercial airliner? Passenger manifests, tollbooths and police crime cameras document all our travel – what should be published? I have discussed this with every non-pilot I know. Everyone objects to around-the-clock internet access to their driving history, some saying they would take to the streets over it. But most will make an exception for aircraft. Why is my drive to the airport no one's business, but my flight to Chicago is everyone's business and not simply recorded in a public archive somewhere, but broadcast to the world like a radio talk show?
Some will cite precedent after precedent for how privacy rights are curtailed – the acquiescence defense. But others will admit to this sentiment: You guys get to fly around in your airplanes, and are complaining about this? What does it matter in today's Facebook world anyway, where your iPhone tracks your every move?
Most obviously, Facebook is not the government. You participate voluntarily or you don't use it. And so far, there's no FCC website tracking everywhere your cellphone is transmitting. But there really is a website tracking airplanes, and last week the DOT said privacy is no grounds for exclusion from it. Whether you drive on federal highways, walk the sidewalks or are lucky enough to be directly impacted by this decision, everyone should consider the precedent it sets.