FAA’s flight-tracking plan puts security, privacy at risk

April 1, 2011

AOPA is urging the FAA to reconsider plans to curtail pilots’ use of a program that shields information about their flights from public view.

National security and personal privacy will suffer if the FAA proceeds with its plan to limit access to the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program, said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger in formal comments filed April 1. She described the FAA’s proposed revisions of BARR as “a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“AOPA has determined that the proposed changes are dangerous, invasive, and non-competitive and the implications are far reaching,” she wrote.

AOPA reported March 4 that the FAA had solicited comments on its proposal to restrict BARR use to operators who can submit written certification of a “valid security concern”—defined as “a verifiable threat to person, property or company, including a threat of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm against an individual, a recent history of violent terrorist activity in the geographic area in which the transportation is provided, or a threat against a company.”

Currently, operators with privacy or security concerns can block flight information from being made available to several vendors via Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) data, provided by the FAA. The BARR program is administered by the National Business Aviation Association, which also opposes the proposed changes and has organized a petition against the proposal.

“Society in general is working very hard to protect personal privacy with many lifeguards and safeguards being put into effect to protect individuals,” Rudinger wrote. “At the same time, the FAA is telling the public they have no problem with sharing all information on your operation. And yet, the same agency that wants to deny all private aircraft owners their right to privacy has chosen to block all of its own aircraft movements and those of other government agencies. This is a classic example of a government that is out of sync with those that it regulates.”

Rudinger added that the proposed program limits might create new complications for security officials monitoring aircraft movements.

“There is no doubt that if the proposed modifications to the BARR program are carried out, the true identity of many aircraft operators will be buried under layers of Limited Liability Corporations, shadow leasing firms, and other techniques that will be devised to serve the same purpose that the BARR program serves today,” she said. Those fears were shared by “key individuals” in the Homeland Security and Defense sectors, she noted.

The planned policy conflicts with a security advisory provided to operators of high-end aircraft by the Transportation Security Administration, “and seems to pit one agency against the other,” she said.

“In light of this advisory DOT should be looking to expand the program and change it to ‘Opt In’ versus ‘Opt Out.’ It seems counterproductive that at a time when individuals are taking prudent steps to prevent a known risk, the government appears unconcerned.”

Rudinger also expressed AOPA’s concerns about future government data-sharing policy, including discussions about outsourcing all current data feeds and data to a specific vendor. She recommended that any changes be vetted publicly with at least a 60-day comment period.

“The BARR program as currently operated is effective in balancing the needs of private aircraft owner security and privacy while allowing for information sharing as necessary,” she wrote.