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Airline did not violate passenger privacy by turning over data

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Airline did not violate passenger privacy by turning over data

  • Northwest Airlines did not violate passenger privacy when it gave NASA passenger information in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

June 15, 2004 — A federal judge in Minnesota dismissed a class action lawsuit against Northwest Airlines last week, finding that the company did not violate privacy laws when it gave passenger data to the National Aeronautical and Space Administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson dismissed the plaintiffs’ privacy violations claims, filed under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, as well as the plaintiffs’ invasion of privacy claims. The ECPA prohibits a person or entity from unauthorized access to electronic communications, and prohibits a provider of an electronic communications service to the public from revealing information electronically stored by the service.

The plaintiffs claimed that Northwest’s access to its own electronic communications service was limited by its privacy policy. By providing passenger data to NASA, Northwest violated that policy and the act, the plaintiffs argued.

NASA requested the information from Northwest to conduct exploratory studies on how the agency could contribute to enhancing aviation security. The agency used the information to test data mining and other data analysis techniques, until the research was terminated in February 2003.

On June 6, Magnuson found that Northwest is “simply not an electronic communications service provider” within the meaning of the act. He further concluded that although an entity other than an electronic communications service may be liable for improper access to electronic communications under the act, disclosure of information is not prohibited.

Turning to the plaintiffs’ “intrusion upon seclusion” privacy law claim, Magnuson found that the plaintiffs did not prove that Northwest’s disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

“Plaintiffs voluntarily provided their personal information to Northwest,” Magnuson wrote. “Further, the disclosure here was not to the public at large, but rather was to a government agency in the wake of a terrorist attack that called into question the security of the nation’s transportation system. Northwest’s motives in disclosing the information cannot be questioned.”

(In re Northwest Airlines Privacy Litigation) KM

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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