FAA's Privacy Decision: Throwing Out the Baby with the Bath Water

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EDITORIAL. Undoubtedly, many pilots will applaud the FAA's new decision to stop making airman mailing address data available to the public. But AVweb's Editor-in-Chief Mike Busch contends that the Agency's sudden policy reversal is totally self-serving, terrible for aviation, and will actually make the privacy situation worse for individual airmen by depriving them of important remedies that they currently have. Here's his thought-provoking analysis of who this decision hurts most, who it helps, and why.

ATIS Baby with Bath WaterThis may well turn out to be AVweb's most controversial editorial since I co-founded this publication three years ago. It's about the FAA's sudden decision to stop making airman mailing addresses available to the public, reversing the Agency's decades-old policy. I first caught wind of this decision a couple of weeks ago, and have discussed it privately with dozens of pilots since then. Many reacted with delight, saying that the FAA decision is a good thing and long overdue. I expect that many of you reading this will react the same way. (I've braced myself for a torrent of email nastygrams.)

I disagree. I'm convinced that this decision is a terrible one, both for the aviation industry and for the individual airmen whose privacy it purports to protect. I hope you'll consider my analysis with an open mind and — if by some miracle you wind up agreeing with me — I hope you'll join me in asking the Powers That Be at the FAA and DOT to reconsider their decision.

First, a little background...

The FAA maintains many aviation related databases at its computer centers in Oklahoma City. These include (among others) numerous navigational databases (airports, navaids, fixes, airways, obstructions, etc.) as well as lists of certificate holders (airlines, flight schools, charter operators, etc.), U.S.-registered aircraft and aircraft owners, mechanics, and airmen (pilots, flight instructors, flight engineers, control tower operators, etc.)

For as long as anybody can remember, the FAA has treated most of this data as public domain information, and made what it deemed to be "non-sensitive" data available to anybody that wanted it for a nominal fee (basically, the cost of copying). For many years, the FAA distributed this data itself, but more recently it has hired outside contractors to handle the distribution.

CDROMSince 1990, the FAA's contractor for aircraft registration and airman certificate data has been Aerodata, Inc. of Boulder, Colorado. The FAA furnishes the data to Aerodata, who then resells it at nominal cost to thousands of aviation associations, organizations and companies who use it for many different purposes, mostly involving direct mail.

Until not long ago, if you wanted this data, you'd have to take it either on 9-track reel-to-reel tape or in the form of pressure-sensitive mailing labels. But in the last few years, the data has become available on CDROM, making it much less expensive and easier to use. And in recent years, most of these databases have become accessible online (and free) via the Internet.

What's changing, and why?

As every aviator knows only too well, technology often outpaces government's ability to respond to it. So it should be no surprise that easier access to data has generated some problems. In a recent meeting with industry representatives at 800 Independence Avenue, FAA lawyers cited several reasons for their decision to reclassify airman mailing address data as "sensitive" and no longer make it available to non-government users.

Last year, as many of you will recall, some sensitive Social Security Administration data was inadvertently made available on the Internet. The data was quickly removed within a matter of days, but the media picked up the story and a huge flap ensued, prompting the Clinton Administration to order a government-wide review to ensure that each Department and Agency of the Federal Government was fully and scrupulously in compliance with the Privacy Act.

The Privacy Act (5 USC 522A) was enacted in 1974 as a companion act to the Freedom Of Information Act (5 USC 522), and was intended to protect individuals against misuse of personal information collected by agencies of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, particularly data whose misuse could threaten employment, insurance, and credit opportunities. Whereas the FOIA says that the government must disclose most non-classified information upon request by a citizen, the Privacy Act sets limits on the disclosure of personal information. (In fact, the Privacy Act is often cited by agencies when they deny a FOIA request.)

The Privacy Act is a very complex law, but in a nutshell, it requires each federal agency to:

  • disclose the existence of databases they maintain containing personal information, and who authorized the information to be collected;

  • inform individuals how the agency will use the information, and the consequences they face (if any) if they choose not to provide the requested information;

  • permit individuals to access and correct their own personal information in those databases; and

  • allow each individual to decide what records kept by the Government are sensitive, and to permit the individual to insist that such records be used only for their intended purpose.

The FAA attorneys claim that the new decision to withhold airman address information is necessary to comply with the Privacy Act. In addition, they have pointed out a couple of specific cases of misuse of airman address information that they found troubling and which clearly contributed to their decision. In one case, a parole officer (who also happened to be a private pilot) was harassed at home by a parolee who had obtained the officer's home address by looking up his airman record over the Internet. In another case, an FAA inspector was harassed at home by a pilot against whom the inspector was prosecuting an FAR violation, after the pilot obtained the inspector's home address over the Internet. (Some wags might be tempted to dismiss the second case as poetic justice, but it clearly was exactly the sort of misuse of personal information that the Privacy Act is supposed to protect against.)

Well, to make a long story short, FAA Chief Counsel Nicholas G. Garaufis has now decreed that the FAA will no longer make airman mailing address information available to non-government users. An attorney at the Airman Records Branch in OKC advised AVweb that such data will no longer be distributed to Aerodata Inc., the FAA's exclusive contractor for disseminating this data. So unless the FAA changes its mind, the May 1998 update of the airman file will be the last one that contains mailing address information.

Who is hurt most by this?

Direct mailThe most obvious immediate casualties of this policy change are the thousands of aviation associations and businesses that do direct mailings based on the FAA airman file. Local airport associations will have a much harder time reaching local pilots. Sponsors of pilot safety seminars will have difficulty notifying pilots in the area of the event. When Phil Boyer holds his Pilot Town Meetings, notices may wind up being sent only to those pilots in the area who are AOPA members. Ultimately, pilots may stop receiving a lot of pilot-oriented catalogs and direct-mail pieces that many of them enjoy getting.

Of course, this doesn't mean that none of us are going to get our Sporty's catalog next month. The airman mailing list won't suddenly vanish into thin air, nor will it be withdrawn from the Internet. What the decision does mean is that the data will no longer be updated, so it'll gradually get stale.

The biggest impact, therefore, will fall squarely on precisely that very special group of airmen on whose collective shoulders our nation's aviation future rests: new pilots! It's those folks who might well not get their catalogs from Sporty's and King Schools, or their invitation to join AOPA and EAA, or their direct mail solicitations to subscribe to Aviation Safety or FLYING, or their complimentary subscription to Flight Training. It's those folks who may well not get notified when a pilot safety seminar is coming to town, or when their local airport is under attack by the local politicos. Likewise, pilots who earn their instrument rating may no longer receive a special introductory subscription offer from IFR magazine.

Personally, I think that would be a crying shame.

Who does this help?

Good question! The existing database of 670,000 airmen will continue to exist, and will continue to be accessible online. The home addresses of the FAA inspectors and parole officers that are in that database today will continue to be available next month or next year, accessible by anyone who might be interested, whether their intent is admirable or malicious. Unless I'm missing something, the only beneficiaries will be newly-hired FAA inspectors and parole officers, and those that relocate to a different address.

Wait. I lied! There is one other very important beneficiary of this decision: the Federal Aviation Administration itself. You see, next time someone harasses a parole officer or FAA inspector at home, the FAA will be able to say, "don't look at us, we don't make home addresses available to non-government users!"

What's wrong with this picture?

JusticeI'm not a lawyer. (I don't even play one on TV.) But it's hard for me to believe that this is what the Congress had in mind when it enacted the Privacy Act into law. According to my (admittedly lay) understanding of the Act, its purpose was not to compel agencies to stop disseminating personal information, but rather to compel those agencies to disclose what information they want to collect and why, and then let each individual choose what personal information they wish to disclose to the government and how that information should be used.

Shouldn't each individual airman have the right to decide for himself or herself what mailing address goes into his or her record in the airman file that the FAA makes available to the public: home address, business address, a post office box...or even no address at all if the airman so chooses? If given the choice, for example, I bet many FAA inspectors and aviating parole officers might opt to list their work address instead of their home address. Why shouldn't they have that option?

Ironically, they do! Just as the Privacy Act requires, any airman may contact the Airman Records Branch (AFS-760) in Oklahoma City (phone 1-405-954-3261, FAX 1-405-954-4105) and request that their mailing address information be changed to an alternative permanent mailing address (such as a business address or even a post office box), or even unlist themselves altogether.

What? You say you didn't know that?

Well, don't feel alone. The FAA has never publicized the existence of this important remedy, and 9 out of 10 pilots have no idea that it exists. Think about the last time you filled out an FAA form that asked for your mailing address — probably the last time you applied for a new certificate or rating, a renewal, or a medical certificate. Did the form say anything about the fact that your mailing address would be made public? Or that you had the option to provide an address other than your home address? Or that you could even choose to keep your address confidential?

If the FAA had publicized these options the way the spirit (if not the letter) of the Privacy Act requires them to do, don't you suppose that a lot of FAA inspectors and parole officers would take advantage of that provision, and opt to receive their Sporty's catalog at work instead of at home? Just a thought.

But wait, it gets worse!

Here's something else you might want to consider. Now that you know about your address-change and opt-out options at the FAA Airman Records Branch, some of you might be tempted to pick up the phone or send a FAX to Oke City and request that your address in the FAA airman file be changed to something other than your home address.

Don't bother.

You see, the FAA has decided that it won't be making updates to that file available any more. As a result, the currently-available database has been "frozen" as far as non-government users are concerned. That same old database will be in use for years to come — not unlike that old Kitty Hawk phone book that Orville Wright purloined when he stayed there a few years ago — and because there will be no more FAA-supplied updates, you'll effectively have lost your option to change your address or opt out altogether. So if you don't want folks to have access to your home address, you'd better start looking for another place to live.

By the way, the FAA made this decision that affects all of us without bothering to ask any of us what we think about it. There was no NPRM, no public comment period, no consultation with alphabet groups...just a unilateral decision by the FAA lawyers, and that was that. So much for our new, improved, client-oriented FAA!

What's my angle, anyway?

Those who have read this far (and you know who you are) are probably asking yourself, "What's Busch's angle? Has AVweb's ox been gored by this decision? What axe is he grinding by writing this rant?"

It's a fair question, and I've given it quite a bit of thought. But no matter how hard I try, I can't see how the FAA's decision hurts me or AVweb. It doesn't hurt me personally because:

  • I don't do direct mail,

  • everybody already knows where I live, and

  • Jan and I have a 100-pound Rottweiler.

Oddly enough, it strikes me that the FAA's decision — however misguided — is actually beneficial for AVweb. Here's why. As you know, AVweb is free to readers like you. Our only source of revenue comes from the aviation companies and organizations that choose to advertise on AVweb (God bless 'em). Therefore, AVweb's "competition" consists of all the other vehicles that aviation companies and organizations use to promote their products and services — primarily traditional paper aviation publications and direct mail. (We jokingly refer to them as "tree killers.")

The FAA's decision to withhold airman mailing addresses hurts the ability of many of those aviation companies and organizations to reach pilots by direct mail. Consequently, it benefits AVweb. By the same token, every time the U.S. Postal Service hikes its rates (as it now wants to do again), it hurts the "tree killers" and helps AVweb.

FAA should reconsider

Baby with Bath WaterNevertheless, in my oh-so-humble opinion, the FAA's decision is a bad one. It's bad for aviation, bad for personal privacy, bad for individual freedom, and fraught with unintended consequences (like effectively nullifying the present opt-out provisions). I believe top FAA management should reconsider the decision of their lawyers, and reverse this misguided change to what has been a long-standing and well-accepted FAA policy that has served its customers (you and me) well for so many years.

I know plenty of you will disagree with me, and I know that you know my email address (nastygrams@avweb.com) and even where I live. (If you don't, you can look it up!) But if there are any of you who think I might be onto something here, you might consider making your feelings known to the FAA Powers-That-Be and urge them to change their mind and rescind this ill-conceived move.

To that end, here are some names and email addresses you might find handy:

When you write to these fine folks, be sure to "cc" me, will you? Thanks!