Airlines admit sharing data on passengers

WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest airlines said Saturday they provided millions of passenger records to the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in an acknowledgement that data sharing between the industry and government was more widespread than previously revealed.

The FBI requested as much as a year’s worth of passenger records from American, United, Delta and Northwest airlines in the days following the attacks, the airlines said Saturday. They said they were willing to comply because the FBI issued subpoenas and because they felt a sense of duty to assist the investigation.

"This was a criminal investigation by the FBI that involved two of our planes and 18 of our employees," United Airlines spokeswoman Jean Medina said. "We complied fully with their request."

It was not clear Saturday whether other carriers received the FBI requests for data, which were first reported by The New York Times on Saturday. Southwest Airlines said it was never asked to turn over passenger records to the FBI. US Airways and Continental Airlines did not return phone calls seeking comment.

An FBI spokeswoman said Saturday that the bureau wanted the data to get information about the 19 hijackers and possible co-conspirators. She said the information has likely been shared with the bureau’s joint terrorism task forces, which include local law enforcement and other anti-terror officials from agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.

"The airlines were very cooperative in the investigation, especially given the seriousness of the situation," FBI spokeswoman Donna Spiser said. "We needed to use the records to see if there were different travel patterns (among the hijackers) and to see if there were additional threats, especially because there was a rumor about a second wave of attacks."

Spiser said she believes the information request was a one-time event and the FBI is not currently receiving passenger data from U.S. airlines.

In the past year, several airlines admitted that they had secretly provided the same kinds of records, which contain home addresses, telephone numbers and credit card information, to government agencies or contractors as part of airline security projects.

JetBlue, Northwest and American airlines face class action lawsuits filed on behalf of passengers who claim the carriers violated their privacy because they shared their private information without telling them. Many carriers’ published privacy policies dictate that they will only share information with travel-related companies, and some give passengers the option of not sharing data.

Following the initial disclosure that information was shared, many companies have said they will only provide passenger data to government agencies when required to do so. Northwest Airlines was involved in both the FBI data sharing and a separate project in which the airline provided three months’ of passenger information to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for an airline security study.

The airline previously defended its cooperation with NASA, and Saturday said its cooperation with the FBI was appropriate. "By providing the passenger name record data directly to the FBI, in the context of a federal law enforcement investigation, Northwest acted appropriately and consistently with its own privacy policy and all applicable federal laws," the airline said in a statement. "It is the policy of Northwest Airlines to cooperate fully with government authorities in aviation security and counter terrorist activity."

Privacy advocates raised a concern about the breadth of the subpoenas, saying the disclosure represents a troubling precedent in which private companies are willing to comply with broad subpoenas for private records, especially when it’s not clear how the information will be used or shared with other groups.

"What this all goes to is how vulnerable we now are to the government snooping around in our records," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program.

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