Last Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published "For the Highest Fliers, New Scrutiny"
, a report by Mark Maremont and Tom McGinty, that indirectly criticizes FAA's Block Aircraft Registration Request [BARR] program that enables private aircraft operators to prevent snoopers from monitoring their flights through public access websites. Reportedly, Sergei Brin and Larry Page used their own B767 to fly to French Polynesia to watch a solar eclipse in July 2010. Casual web surfers were prohibited from detecting the flight because the N-registration was blocked by request. Mr. Maremont and Mr. McGinty, though, filed a Freedom of Information Act request and gained access to the flight info sometime after the aircraft returned to Moffett Field where it is based.
"Those with access to private jets fly around the globe on a whim, steering clear of security lines and never being charged extra for baggage. Their flight paths are generally hidden from view through a federally approved program that keeps certain aircraft movements 'blocked' from the public," they wrote.
The report seems to imply there's something wrong about using a private aircraft and not having to make it public knowledge. It also seems to suggest that Brin and Page should be stripped of their privacy rights. It's no secret that Brin and Page, among other high profile US business leaders, have had their disagreements with the current Washington establishment. Is the proposed roll back of BARR by FAA another slap in their faces?
Could be. The expose goes far beyond just the flying patterns of the two Google founders. Maremont and McGinty said they were able to obtain all records of private aircraft movements from 2007 through 2010 through their FOIA request. The authors noted that their expose comes right at the time that FAA is considering changes to the BARR program that would make public much of the information that operators currently can keep confidential. Hmmm. Nice coincidence of timing.
"I think that [private aircraft flight records] ought to be private information. There are serious security implications," countered Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at the LA-based Reason Foundation. NBAA also points out that sensitive business meetings could be exposed by showing where a company's aircraft fly and when.
A roll back of BARR might signal the start of other violations of privacy. What if it were extended to other forms of transportation, including private automobiles. Toll booth transponders [e.g., FastPass boxes] record the time, date and identity of each vehicle passing through the interrogation lane. What if that data were made public?
Currently, only law enforcement agencies have access to toll booth transponder records and to digital photos of license plates that are recorded if a car doesn't have an operable FastPass transponder aboard. They only use the data for law enforcement. But, there's every reason why intrepid reporters might also want access to the FastPass data so that they could publish a report on who is driving where at what times and on what days.
Relaxation of BARR privacy requests could have ominous overtones. If auto travel patterns also can be recorded and monitored with today's technology, perhaps that's fodder for the next expose by the media about America's business leaders.