Saturday, May 17, 2008

Flying long distance

International travel is stressful to many people. As am I writing this entry, I am at roughly 37,000 feet above the group on board of a KLM Boeing 777-200. Today's flight will take me from the Netherlands, back to the United States.

The flight attendants just handed out The Forms, and people are freaking out. Not because they worry about giving up their information, but because they are uncertain about what to put in the open spaces, afraid of the consequences when they make a mistake, and generally apprehensive about the unknown.

When flying to the United States, everyone is required to complete one
or more forms. The forms contain basic information, such as the
passenger's name, destination address, passport number, etc.

One of my future "essential truths"-posts will revolve around the
simple adagio "what you do not have, you cannot lose". Since I am a
permanent resident, I only have to complete the customs declaration
form. I do not need to complete I-94 (Visa holders) or I-94w forms
(citizens of foreign countries who are eligible for the visa waiver
program). However, all these forms collect is information we have
already provided to the airline when we booked our tickets, and again
when we checked in.

We know that the airlines are sharing this information with US
immigration; there has been enough publicity around the legal basis for
doing so (or rather, the lack thereof). Yet, we are asked to provide it
over again. How hard can it be to optimize some information flows? As a
passenger who values safety and convenience first, and privay second, I
have no problems with providing some information.

Even if would object, that's a mute point since all it would earn me is
deportation or refusal to enter the country. Anyhow, why do I have to
provide the same information four times? Who is looking after all of
this? Is the physical medium it is on stored somewhere? If so; how much
space does that take (square footage)? It is digitized and then
discarded? If so, how is it discarded? How is it digitized? Who has
access to it? How long is it retained? How is it protected?

There are so many data collection points when traveling into (and to a
much smaller extent, out of) the United States that an information
analyst cannot help butwonder. An information security professional
might even get slightly worried.

Don't get me wrong. Having my traveler's profile stored in an opaque
government system on which I cannot exercise any kind of audit or
control is not my hobby. The privacy implications of this massive
database have been discussed in many other places. However, in this I
take a more pragmatic stance: there is nothing I can do, so I'm not
going to worry about it.

Oh; I also accidentally had my WiFi enabled. "A new wireless network
was detected: Free Public WiFi". My position is somewhere over the
Atlantic, South of Greenland's capital Gothab. I doubt there are many
access points here. Is it something that is running on another user's
laptop? Is s/he operating a honeypot? Or is it something built in to
the 777 to tell me to get lost and switch off my WiFi? I am not curious
enough to try and find out; flight safety is probably not jeapordized
by it, but why take the risk?

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