Perspectives on Data Ownership: 2013

This analysis appeared March 15, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


Recent popular discussions of “big data” (a surprisingly ill-defined term) are curiously silent on where these data may come from and who should decide where and how they are used. Perhaps this is because the current social media wave encourages individuals and businesses to surrender a degree of privacy (and hence control over data) in return for the promised benefits of whatever service is on offer.

While we may believe that travel data ownership questions were settled long ago, control and ownership questions are more complex than many assume and require careful review regardless of how open or restrictive data access should be.

Everyone’s In Charge

Most travel businesses you speak with will assert either that passenger travel data belong to them or that they have a right to use and distribute them essentially as they see fit.

Corporate travel managers usually maintain that, since they pay the bills, they both own and control the data. Airlines and other vendors often assume the right to use and distribute data about the use of their services, and travel management companies believe they have a degree of ownership because much of the most valuable travel data comes from their systems and exists because they expended energy to create it on behalf of “their customers.”

This travel data ownership conflict is a familiar story, but there are other less evident or considered levels:

A number of processing intermediaries including payment systems, ticket processors, GDS companies, and on-line booking tools assert a right to distribute travel data and reports for their financial benefit, apart from any direct or indirect benefit travel buyers receive. Typically this is done with individual travelers remaining anonymous, but the degree to which “anonymous” travel detail is widely available, down to specific itineraries and dates, would surprise most travel managers.

Many sources also make data available to third-party aggregators, who also operate for their own financial benefit under the assumed anonymity of individual travelers. Such companies produce an array of usage and comparative models, predictions, and similar data projects which find uses far removed from travel management.

Assumed Anonymity

I use this term to describe the broad assumption that, if my name isn’t present, whatever follows doesn’t matter. Anonymity can unravel quickly. It’s hard to argue that the kind of industry-wide data aggregations used by the DOT and others to predict economic trends are threatening, but under the care of a skilled analyst, extensive company-specific and individual travel patterns could be deduced, especially by combining multiple sources.

Interesting Questions

The extent and depth of travel data distribution and usage should at least cause travel managers some reflection, even if they decide they need not be concerned.
Here are a few specific thoughts:

  1.  complete chain of custody affecting anyone’s travel data is unknown–sometimes adequate, elsewhere non-existent. Many companies with data responsibilities have no real data security program in place that runs deeper that simply saying the right things.
  2. How is it that so many travel industry business intermediaries are selling data produced by customer activities for their own benefit? Aggregate industry analytical reports are one thing–distributing detailed raw data to third parties is another. Where did that permission come from?
  3. Have corporate travel managers looked at the type of data being distributed about their travelers in detail and rationalized it with their own company privacy and security practices?
  4. Are travel management companies comfortable with the extent of peer comparison by vendors and subsequent data aggregation that has become commonplace in the industry?