British Airways Brings Doctrow’s Fiction to Reality

Cory Doctrow’s short story Scroogled opens with the harassment of the main character as he is making his way through customs on his return from a vacation to the United States. Most of the trouble is caused by the officials misinterpretations of what they see in the Google results they are using to help screen passengers.

“Tell me about your hobbies. Are you into model rocketry?”


“Model rocketry.”

“No,” Greg said, “No, I’m not.” He sensed where this was going.

The man made a note, did some clicking. “You see, I ask because I see a heavy spike in ads for rocketry supplies showing up alongside your search results and Google mail.”

Greg felt a spasm in his guts. “You’re looking at my searches and e-mail?” He hadn’t touched a keyboard in a month, but he knew what he put into that search bar was likely more revealing than what he told his shrink.

“Sir, calm down, please. No, I’m not looking at your searches,” the man said in a mocking whine. “That would be unconstitutional. We see only the ads that show up when you read your mail and do your searching. I have a brochure explaining it. I’ll give it to you when we’re through here.”

The story only gets scarier from there. It’s basically a tale about the risks of having so much of our lives online and accessible, and it is certainly worth a read.

I was reminded of this story when I came across news of an effort at British Airways to use Google as a means to facilitate customer service. The airline recently announced plans to utilize Google searches to help deliver more personalized attention to it’s passengers. From the article:

Jo Boswell, head of customer analysis at BA, said: “We’re essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favourite restaurant when you’re welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers. This is just the start — the system has a myriad of possibilities for the future.”

I guess it was only a matter of time before someone thought that looking up registered customers on Google was a good idea, but it is rankling the ire of privacy advocates and is it sure to creep out any number of future passengers. Does the airline not realize potential identity mixups using Google? For example, if you search for “Jeff Northrop” you will find me but you also get information on a motocross professional and a guy that sells oysters. All three of us share the same name.

And what happens if, like Greg in Scroogled, the information gleaned from the search engines are misinterpreted. Could they deny someone the right to fly. The US Homeland Security’s “No Fly List” has shown just how easily a name can be sullied without just cause.

However, the concept is not new. I recall reading a case study back in business school that outlined how the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels would take a picture of each person as they checked in. It then matched that image up with their name, then archived it. At some future date, when the same customer returned to any other Ritz-Carlton, the desk clerks were ready for his arrival with a picture of the individual. That way when he approached the desk the attending clerk could greet him by name, making them feel a little like a celebrity. I can remember back in the 1980’s thinking that this was a fantastic customer service technique.

Thirty years later, with British Airways essentially planning something similar, all I can think is “Scroogled.” Times have changed.


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