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PILOT-COUNSEL: Pilots And Privacy
or revoke the airman’s FAA certificates. Query: Is that worth the violation of the spirit if not the actual wording of the Privacy Act? Do you notice anymore? Is that “insidious?”
Here is a more current example. Beginning in July of 2003, the Department of Transportation (that includes the FAA) and the Social Security Administration initiated a joint effort to identify the misuse of Social Security numbers by pilots. Somehow that effort got derailed into a record matching that identified a number of pilots with current medical certificates who were receiving Social Security disability benefits (an obvious “beneficent purpose”). They then narrowed their review to the 40,000 pilots residing in the northern half of California (that’s probably all if not most of them), identified 3,220 who were collecting benefits (some disability benefits), and then selected the 45 worst cases for criminal prosecution. In 14 cases the FAA issued emergency orders immediately revoking their pilots licenses and medical certificates. As best as we can tell, the 40,000 pilots (overwhelmingly innocent and law abiding) were not notified that their FAA records were being computer matched against Social Security computer records.
That may not be the end of it. The DOT Inspector General has indicated, “As the results of this initiative involve only a portion of certificated pilots in California, it is important that FAA take steps to proactively identify and address similar falsifications occurring elsewhere across the greater community of certificated pilots. We recommend that FAA, working with SSA and the other disability benefit providers, expedite development and implementation of a strategy to carry out these checks and take appropriate certificate enforcement action where falsification is found. We would be pleased to assist FAA in exploring options for accomplishing this, to include database matching with record systems of the disability providers.”
So, we may see more computer matching of our information on the FAA databases with other government databases. Where will it end? As the scope widens, the “beneficent” purposes likely will narrow and become more arguable. Our privacy is being chipped away by inches, insidiously.
I must be clear that what I am talking about is only government computer matching, to which the Privacy Act is directed. Names, addresses, and certification of pilots on the FAA list are public information (unless a pilot opts out). Any member of the public is entitled to this public information and many use it for computer-matching purposes. That is a separate matter.
It occurs to me that we pilots, in a spirit of cooperation, are unwittingly giving the FAA more ammunition than it is entitled to, to facilitate any future such efforts that may have more arguable “beneficent” purposes. An individual’s social security number is the ideal identifier for computer matching. The Privacy Act Statement on the Application For Airman Medical Certificate, required by the Privacy Act, tells us “Submission of your SSN is not required by law and is voluntary. Refusal to furnish your SSN will not result in the denial of any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law.” Why do most pilots voluntarily give their social security number? Why are we doing it? Probably because this trend has been so insidious, though many may be conscientiously doing it with full knowledge of what they are doing. I respect that. I, for one, am writing to the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, ultimately in charge of the records, asking him to remove my social security number from my FAA records. And, I won’t be furnishing it in any future applications to the FAA. This dangerous trend to the invasion of pilots’ privacy rights bears watching. If the FAA has lost control, it shouldn’t be the keeper of important information that other agencies have a mandate to keep private.
One last word--while the FAA appears to be the culprit, reading between the lines, I get the feeling that the FAA is being forced into it, as it has been forced to front for the airspace and airport restrictions imposed on pilots since the September 11, 2001, terrorist bombings.
Copyright © Yodice Associates 2005. All rights reserved.
John Yodice is the Senior Partner of the Law Offices of Yodice Associates, a law firm experienced in aviation legal matters involving DOT, FAA and TSA certification and compliance, corporate governance, aircraft transactions and more. www.yodice.com
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