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Northwest Airlines' Disclosure of Passenger Data to Federal Agencies

New Information Disclosed in EPIC's FOIA Lawsuit -- FBI Obtained
Passenger Data; TSA Informed of NASA Screening Research

As a result of litigation that EPIC pursued in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has released additional documents relating to its receipt and use of passenger data from Northwest Airlines. The agency has also filed a "Vaughn index," which describes other documents that are being withheld and provides NASA's justification for not releasing the material.

The most significant revelation contained in the newly-released material is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained one full year's worth of Northwest passenger data. In an internal NASA e-mail message (pdf), a researcher states that Northwest provided the data to the FBI on 6000 CDs. In an article based upon this new information, the New York Times has confirmed the disclosure of passenger data to the FBI -- from Northwest as well as other U.S. carriers.

Other new disclosures obtained through EPIC's litigation include:

Relevant Documents (PDFs)


In January 2004, EPIC obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealing that Northwest Airlines provided the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with three months of passenger data in late 2001 or early 2002.

In July 2002, EPIC received documents from the Transportation Security Administration in response to a FOIA request indicating that NASA met with Northwest officials in December 2001 to discuss NASA research, including the development of "non-invasive neuro-logic sensors" as well as passenger screening technology. Soon thereafter, NASA asked Northwest for "system-wide Northwest Airlines passenger data from July, August and September 2001" to be used in NASA's "research and development work."

In September 2003 it was reported that JetBlue Airways turned over passenger data to a Defense Department contractor for use in a data mining and passenger profiling study. At the time, a Northwest official told the New York Times, "we do not provide that type of information to anyone."

In the wake of the JetBlue incident, EPIC submitted a FOIA request to NASA asking for records related to negotiations for passenger data with Northwest or other airlines. In response, NASA provided EPIC documents confirming that Northwest gave NASA three months of passenger data for use in a data mining and passenger profiling study. The documents show that in September 2003, NASA returned to Northwest the CDs on which the passenger data were provided, after retaining the data for almost two years. In an e-mail message to Northwest, a NASA researcher noted, "you may have heard about the problems that JetBlue is now having after providing passenger data for a project similar to ours."

NASA continued to withhold an unspecified number of documents. EPIC filed suit (pdf) against the agency seeking disclosure of that material, which settled in September 2004 after NASA released a substantial number of documents detailing its data mining reseacrh. EPIC also filed a complaint (pdf) with the Department of Transportation alleging that Northwest's disclosure violates its publicly posted privacy policy and constituted an unfair and deceptive trade practice, and requesting a formal investigation. In Semptember 2004, the agency dismissed EPIC's complaint, finding that hat Northwest's privacy policy "did not unambiguously preclude it from sharing data" with NASA, and that "even if it did, such a promise would be unenforceable as against public policy[.]" The agency also found no evidence of actual or likely harm to passengers affected by the data transfer. EPIC has petitioned (pdf) the agency for review.


FOIA Documents

EPIC v. NASA Documents

Department of Transportation Proceeding Documents

Related EPIC Policy Pages

EPIC Home Page

Last Updated: March 28, 2005
Page URL: http://www.epic.org/privacy/airtravel/nasa/default.html