BARR and the State of Privacy

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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.

Comments (10)

Not only are the movements of aircraft broadcast, the name and actual residence address (it is illegal to give the FAA a non-residence address or P.O. Box), of every registered aircraft owner and pilot are accessible to anyone with an internet connection at no cost and no accountability. ANYONE can access it for any reason free of charge.

The largest wording on the FAA homepage says “N-NUMBER INQUIRY”

Since the killing of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stocker who obtained her address from her driver’s license information abstained from the DMV, virtually every State has enacted laws making it a felony for individuals to access DMV records.

Such a law was used to convict Jonathan Norman, who was sentenced to 25 years for stalking Steven Spielberg. If Norman had accessed FAA records instead, there would have been nothing the authorities could have done until he actually attempted to harm Spielberg.

Why are FAA records public and DMV records not?

For those who argue for “transparency”, it works both ways. At the very minimum, every pilot and aircraft owner should HAVE THE ABSOLUTE RIGHT, to know the names and address of anyone who accesses their FAA information.

Posted by: KRIS LARSON | June 10, 2011 6:11 PM    Report this comment

I thought that we already beat this horse.

Posted by: BILL ELLISON | June 11, 2011 9:54 AM    Report this comment

The horse was beat, killed, butchered and shipped to distributors. But I promised Mike a guest blog on it. For the record, so to speak.

Previous blog was removed because I couldn't keep up with the report abuse charges back and forth. Hopefully, that will not happen again.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2011 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Well written and very insightful, thanks. It seems the DOT wants to dismember the BARR program by the introduction of impossible-to-meet rules for showing a "need" for privacy. Since when do we have to have a "need" in order to have privacy in this country? If they do that, the fix is simple enough--a lot of us are going to get very sloppy entering our N-number in our flight plans. Maybe I'll be so rattled by the whole thing that I got some of the digits wrong ;)


Posted by: KENNEETH MEYER | June 11, 2011 12:33 PM    Report this comment

Mode-S and/or ADS-B makes this all moot. Anybody can track any aircraft in real time with no involvement of the FAA. This is a cosmetic issue that even if the aircraft owners win, won't actually make a difference. But I am sure there will be great energy expended on a useless fight.

Posted by: MIKE CIHOLAS | June 11, 2011 4:04 PM    Report this comment

Posting mainly to subscribe to see when comments are posted, but this is one tasty horse...

"Mode-S and/or ADS-B makes this all moot. Anybody can track any aircraft in real time with no involvement of the FAA. "

By that logic, two way radio communication with ATC makes it moot, or the fact anyone can chase an aircraft. It is far from cosmetic - it's the difference between your ISP knowing what you are searching, and the government hosting a website allowing the world to anonymously see what you are searching.

Posted by: Mike Harris | June 11, 2011 4:29 PM    Report this comment

Track the movements of aircraft owners = mucho good. Track the movements of cell phone owners = mucho bad.

As Mike points out (in so many words), it is all a class struggle argument.

In the same way a rich person doesn't deserve to use the money he has earned and should have it taken away for the benefit of the populace, you the aircraft owner have committed the sin of rising above others amd should be slapped down for it.

Posted by: John Wilson | June 13, 2011 12:20 PM    Report this comment

I think people are missing a potential side effect to this change. The DOT stated that public and private entities use the public airspace and thus every detail should be available. This same argument can be directly attributed to people in their cars. This was noted humorously in the top of the blog. But it's a deadly serious set of policy that will make the perverts at the TSA look like Ma Bea serving up Thanksgiving feasts.

On the upside, I'm VFR only, and blend in nicely with all the other 1200 traffic out there. Don't want to be noticed? Go VFR. I'm sure Atlanta Center would be just tickled to watch as you pass under the FLCON or ERLIN at 17.5kf. VFR. At least you won't show up...

(sarcasm detection left as an exercize for the reader)

Posted by: Roger Lee | June 13, 2011 6:55 PM    Report this comment

John, I may not exactly like the idea (though I don't see a Constitutional guarantee to privacy written there) but please stop with the class warfare BS. You do realize we have the lowest taxes, even lower than under ST. Reagan, right? You also further realize that we have had tax rates above 90%? I suppose Ike was a class warfare commie loving lefty?

Note the focus of public anger: Wall Street, bailed out auto companies, and the banks (and their execs) that they perceive as stealing their money. Truth be told, J. Q. Public could care less about Joe Pilot flying his plane. What they are sick of is the Santelli's of the world screaming for a bailout of the Street then complaining about homeowners possibly getting one.

Posted by: Jesse Derks | June 13, 2011 9:07 PM    Report this comment

I do not believe the private owners of aircraft movement should be published(provided to public in any form indiscriminately). The aircraft movement under a corporation's name can be available only that no manifest can be published by government for the same reason airlines don't publish private individual on board the aircraft. Do you know when or where will Airforce One or Two be at and who is on board? Why? The government even goes so far as to lock down the airspace so no aircraft can even go near some 30 nautical miles of the airspace. Do you know what TFR is for? Why? On the absolute term, is an individual's life worth less than anyone rides in Airforce One? I don't think so. I believe and want an individual to have the right to check a box on the flight plan that says "Do not use" or "do not display publicly", like your social security number on your 8710 airman certificate application. For these proponents of dis-BARR action, do you still have you social security number on your pilot certificates? Why not? No, you are not a pilot? Don't own an aircraft? It's obvious there is other reasons why you want to know where each individual pilot, aircraft owners are doing.

Posted by: Chin Tu | June 13, 2011 10:16 PM    Report this comment

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