Monday, 20 May 2013
"Consumer Privacy and Air Travel: Recommendations to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation"
I'm on my way to Washington to take part in an unprecedented discussion on Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Transportation about "the privacy of personally identifiable information collected in connection with the purchase of air travel from airlines and travel agents".
I'll be the sole consumer advocate appearing before the DOT Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, at the end of a day of presentations by Federal and state government agencies and representatives of airlines, travel agencies, and CRSs/GDSs.
I first wrote about the privacy of travel information, well before 11 September 2001, as a consumer issue. For more than a decade, the focus of public attention and of much of my work has shifted to government access to and use of this data. But I have never lost site of my initial and ongoing concerns about the commercial use of travel information.
This meeting is only a first step, and one that is long overdue. But it is also a long-awaited milestone in my work and that of many allies including readers of this blog in the USA and around the world. Thank you for helping get this issue on the DOT's agenda.
I hope to see some of my DC friends at the meeting. (It's open to the public, but you must register in advance to attend.) For those who can't be there, here are the slides of my presentation, including my recommendations for intial DOT actions, and background information including additional references I've submitted for the recrod of the meeting:
- My slides: Consumer Privacy and Air Travel: Recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportationl
- Meeting information
- Agenda and witness list (draft, subject to change)
- Privacy and Travel Data (comments of Edward Hasbrouck, Consumer Travel Alliance, Consumer Federation of America, and Center for Financial Privacy and Human Right to the FTC Privacy Roundtables, 6 November 2009)
- Privacy and other issues with IATA's request for approval of its Resolution 787 on personalized pricing (my comments to the DOT, 1 May 2013)
- Privacy issues with government access to and use of travel information (my presentation at the Cato Institute and on C-SPAN, 2 April 2013)
Sunday, 5 May 2013
The Amazing Race 22, Episode 10 (season finale)
Edinburgh, Scotland (U.K.) - Stranraer, Scotland (U.K.) - Belfast, Northern Ireland (U.K.) - Liverpool, England (U.K.) - London, England (U.K.) - Washington, DC (USA) - Mt. Vernon, VA (USA)
Ten years and twenty seasons of The Amazing Race separate my own visit to Northern Ireland in 2002, which I mentioned in columns about The Amazing Race 2 composed in Belfast cybercafes, and the first visit by The Amazing Race to Northern Ireland, which was filmed in 2012 and broadcast this week as part of the two-hour finale of The Amazing Race 22.
The only activity my own visit to Belfast a decade ago had in common with the racers' activities there this season was a staged on-camera dinner party.
The contestants on The Amazing Race 22 had to act as waiters and waitresses serving a five-course meal to actors in period dress playing first-class passengers on the Titanic, in a banquet tent set up in the drydock where the Titanic had been built and launched.
In my case, filming of the BBC documentary that had brought me to Northern Ireland ("What Are We Like?", BBC1, first broadcast 16 October 2002) concluded with a surreal dinner party in a mansion, Malone House, that's owned by the city of Belfast and rented out for weddings and other events.
Over dinner, my three fellow travellers and I were supposed to discuss what we had seen on our separately-filmed explorations during the preceding week, and compare the impressions we had formed of Northern Ireland as a tourist destinations.
The food was expertly prepared and presented, and the television production team did their best to put us at ease, but it was hard to ignore the multiple camera crews surrounding our table, or the director popping out periodically from behind the potted plants to steer us back to the scripted agenda of topics to be covered in our dinner-table conversation.
The main question the four of us -- representing different tourist demographics from different parts of the world -- had been brought together to answer was, "Is Northern Ireland ready for international tourism?"
The Amazing Race 22 avoided this question entirely, and went to considerable lengths to avoid mentioning "The Troubles" or their legacy -- even when it would have been natural to do so.
One of the tasks for the racers, for example, involved spray-painting a graffiti-style mural under the direction of a local artist. Northern Ireland is renowned for its murals, and one of the standard tours of Belfast is anchored by visits to the iconic murals that express the rival political identities of Unionist and Republican communities. Among my souvenirs of Northern Ireland were coffee-table books of photos and stories of these community-based murals.
Belfast's mural tradition is inescapably and almost entirely political in content and themes. But rather than showcasing the political murals that Northern Ireland is known for and that tourists come to see, or introducing the challenge to the TV audience with shots of well-known Belfast murals, the producers of "The Amazing Race" managed to find a studio full of abstract, unknown, and atypically apolitical graffiti art.
Do the producers of the reality-TV show think that US audiences are less willing to engage with the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland than with that in, say, Vietnam (which caused so much controversy earlier this season)?
As I've written in the course of a wider discussion of travel to countries which are known for their past troubles, "My verdict was that Northern Ireland wasn't ready for international tourism: People interested in visiting Northern Ireland, at least from the USA, are those who want to learn about the peace process that's still too recent and too fragile for most locals to be willing to discuss it."
That was true in 2002, but I don't know if it's still true a decade later. With the passage of time, perhaps people in Northern Ireland are more willing to talk to visitors about "The Troubles" than they were 10 years ago. Perhaps visitors today, especially those from a younger generation, who didn't grow up hearing news of Northern Ireland only in relation to its troubles, may not think or care to ask about them. Perhaps many of today's visitors think of Belfast only as the city of the Titanic, the way it was presented on The Amazing Race 22 this week.
I haven't been back to Northern Ireland since 2002, so I can't say.
When we hear what others say about a place we once visited, it's natural to compare their perceptions to ours. But it's important to keep in mind that we are comparing not just how a place seemed to two different visitors, but how it seemed at two different times.
Did Belfast seem different to the cast of The Amazing Race 22 than it seemed to me when I was there during The Amazing Race 2 because my interests are different from those of the racers, or because I was part of a different sort of TV show: a "news" documentary rather than a "reality" show? Or is the difference due to the fact that times have changed, and Belfast with them, in the last ten years?
Have you been to Belfast recently? What was it like? Please leave a comment.
Friday, 3 May 2013
DOT Advisory Committee on Consumer Protection to consider privacy of travel data
In the first formal public consideration ever by the U.S. government of the privacy issues posed by airline reservations and other personal information used by the air travel industry, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection will devote much of its next quarterly all-day meeting in Washington on 21 May 2013 to travel data privacy issues:
The meeting will also address privacy of personally identifiable information collected in connection with the purchase of air travel from airlines and travel agents. Issues to be addressed are: what information is collected and by whom; who retains information (airlines, travel agents, including on-line travel agents (OTAs), and global distribution systems (GDSs)); what privacy policies are in place and is information used consistent with those policies; and what security measures are in place to protect against unauthorized access? We plan on hearing from government representatives, as well as speakers from the airline and travel agent industry, including GDSs, online travel agents, and consumer groups on the privacy issue.
The notice of the meeting published today in the Federal Register gives little additional information about the format of the meeting. However, here are some important general notes about meetings of the advisory committee:
- "The meeting will be held in the Federal Aviation Administration's auditorium on the 3rd floor of the FAA Headquarters building at 800 Independence Avenue SW., Washington, DC 20591. [closest Metro station: L'Enfant Plaza - EH] Attendance is open to the public up to the room's capacity; however, since access to the FAA headquarters building is controlled for security purposes, any member of the general public who plans to attend this meeting must notify the Department contact identifed below [a private contractor, actually - EH] at least five (5) calendar days prior to the meeting date.... To register to attend the meeting, please contact Jessica Payne, Principal Research Analyst, (703) 894-6560, or Amanda Stokes, Associate Research Analyst (703) 894-6529, Centra Technology, Inc., ACACP@centratechnology.com."
- "[T]he meeting will be open to the public, and written and, time permitting, oral comments by members of the public are invited. Members of the public may present written comments at any time. The docket number referenced above (OST-2012-0087, available at https://www.regulations.gov) has been established for committee documents including any written comments that may be filed.
- "At the discretion of the Chairperson and time permitting, after completion of the planned agenda, individual members of the public may provide oral comments. Any oral comments presented must be limited to the objectives of the committee and will be limited to five (5) minutes per person. Individual members of the public who wish to present oral comments must notify the Department contact noted above via email that they wish to present oral comments at least five (5) calendar days prior to the meeting.... (i.e., by May 16)."
As a part of a major overhaul of the FAA last year, Congress ordered the Department of Transportation to create the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP) as a token concession to consumer advocates. To limit the likelihood that the advisory committee would recommend any changes that are opposed by the travel industry, Congress mandated that the committee consist of two representatives of the travel industry (one representing airlines and one representing airports), one representing state and local governments with expertise in consumer protection (who in general have no jurisdiction over airlines), and one representative of a nonprofit public interest group with an interest in consumer protection matters.
As I said at the time, "An enormous amount will depend on who is appointed to represent consumers on this committee." I was very pleased that Charlie Leocha, Director of the Consumer Travel Alliance (with which I work as a volunteer policy analyst and advisor) was appointed as the lone consumer representative on the ACACP.
The Consumer Travel Alliance joined me and other privacy and consumer groups in comments submitted to the FTC Privacy Roundtables in 2009, outlining the jurisdictional and enforcement gaps between departments and agencies in relation to the privacy of personal information about travellers. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have come of those suggestions for interdepartmental coordination and action, presumably because of continued Department of Transportation (DOT) foot-dragging on consumer protection in general and privacy in particular.
Unlike the DOT, the FTC has taken substantial initiative during the Obama Administration to address consumer privacy issues. But like state consumer protection agencies, the FTC is limited by the law granting the DOT "exclusive" jurisdiction over most airline activities.
The DOT has publicly committed itself to the investigation and prosecution of airlines that violate privacy promises, including promises to abide by the US-EU "Safe Harbor" agreement for data collected in Europe. But in practice, even though no airline that flies between the US and the EU complies with the "Safe Harbor" framework -- and even though a lack of access logs and geographic access controls in CRS functionality makes it impossible for any airline to comply, even if it wanted to -- the DOT has never taken any publicly-disclosed action to investigate airlines for any breaches of "Safe Harbor" or any other privacy promises or policies.
The ACACP may or may not also be taking up some of the privacy issues related to airlines' pending application for DOT approval of IATA Resolution 787 outlining plans for "personalized pricing" of airline tickets.
What should you say if you submit written comments or come to the ACACP meeting in Washington on May 21st to speak in person? I'll be posting more details and my own comments once I know more details about the meeting. But what's needed remains the same as what I told Business Week in this interview a decade ago (although I no longer have much of the optimism I had then about the prospects for positive Congressional action).
Tell the ACACP to recommend that Congress enact a Federal travel privacy law -- or, preferably, a general privacy law for personal information held by private entities -- applicable at minimum to airlines, travel agencies and agents, and their technology providers, vendors, and contractors including CRSs/GDSs.
Tell the ACACP to recommend that DOT categorically prohibit airlines and other travel companies from making any use for their own purposes of information (including identifying information) which travellers are required by the government to provide. Use of information provided by government mandate should be limited to use by the government for government purposes. the government shouldn't force travellers to provide personal information to travel companies and then give those companies free use of that information.
And tell the ACACP to ask DOT to report publicly on what (if anything) it is doing, and what it will commit to doing in the future, to enforce existing laws against making false and deceptive claims in privacy "policies" that don't correspond to privacy practices, including false claims of compliance with the US-EU "Safe Harbor" framework.
Privacy is, of course, only one of the important travel-related consumer issues for Congress and the DOT, if you want to remind the ACACP of some of the others while you are at it.
I look forward to seeing some of you in Washington, DC, on May 21st, following my trip to Portland, OR, for John Brennan's hearing before the TSA for allegedly "interfering with screening" by taking off his clothes at a TSA checkpoint. (And if you don't like the way you are treated at these checkpoints, tell the TSA what you think.)
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
What's wrong with the airlines' proposal for "personalized" ticket prices?
Since at least 2010, airlines have been contemplating replacing publicly-disclosed tariffs of airfares applicable equally to all passengers (as is required by current laws, although airlines seem to have forgotten that) with "personalized" prices that would allow a more profitable (for airlines) degree of price discrimination between travellers.
In October 2012, the international airline trade association IATA officially endorsed the goal of a transition to personalized pricing.
IATA claims it is no longer a cartel, but as a condition of its continuing partial exemption from US antitrust law it is still required to submit certain of its joint decisions for review, and in some cases approval, by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). As part of this process, IATA has now asked submitted its Resolution 787 endorsing the goal of personalized pricing for public comment and DOT approval.
Most of the other comments submitted to DOT -- even those on what I think to be the right side of the issue, opposing DOT approval of IATA Resolution 787 -- reflect the commercial interests of various segments of the air travel and airline ticket sales industry: airlines themselves, travel agencies and agencies, computerized reservation systems, and other technology and infrastructure providers and intermediaries.
As of today, the only other comments I could find in the docket from any genuinely independent consumer advocacy organization are these from the Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA), with which I also work. There's more from the CTA in their blog here. The New York Times has also weighted in with this editorial against the IATA proposal.
If you'd like to submit your own comments, endorsing mine and/or those of CTA, or making points of your own, you can do so online here. The comment deadline is tomorrow, Wednesday, 1 May 2013, at midnight Washington, DC, time.
Sunday, 28 April 2013
The Amazing Race 22, Episode 9
Berlin (Germany) - Edinburgh, Scotland (U.K.)
This week The Amazing Race 22 went to Scotland, where the racers spent their time visiting castles, interacting with actors playing characters from Scotland's past, and otherwise exploring Scotland's history and tourist image rather than its oil-exporting present.
The most difficult challenge for one member of each two-person team of racers was to learn to sustain a single note on a set of bagpipes long enough to march one circuit around the mezzanine of the castle's great hall with the other members of a pipe and drum band.
It was harder than they expected. "I played the trumpet for four years. I can totally do this," Meghan thought -- until she tried it.
It's obvious that playing the bagpipes involves a particular skill, unique to this instrument, of manipulating the air bag. It's less obvious how complex a set of bagpipes is in other ways.
My own exposure to how much is involved in learning to play the bagpipes came on a childhood visit with my family to the Gaelic College in St. Ann's, Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia means "New Scotland". What is now the Canadian province was founded as a legally distinct Scottish, not English, colonial territory. Much of the population traces its ancestry to Scotland, and Nova Scotia remains a center of Scottish cultural traditions (including, as often happens in such diasporic communities with the passage of time, traditions that have been all but forgotten in the homeland as it has changed in different ways).
The Gaelic College is a bona fide educational institution that offers instruction in the Scottish Gaelic language (not to be confused with the closely related language or dialect sometimes called "Irish Gaelic" but more often referred to today simply as "Irish") as well as in Celtic dance, drama, storytelling, weaving and other crafts, and sundry Celtic musical instruments and styles including bagpiping.
I haven't been back in many years, although the Maritimes are high on my list of places I hope to revisit and further explore. A little Internet research, however, seems to confirm that the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts is still operating in the same location with a similar curriculum, including classes in elementary, intermediate, and advanced bagpiping.
The Gaelic College is also something of a tourist attraction along the Cabot Trail, the scenic coastal highway that circles Cape Breton Island. (No longer actually an island, for what it's worth, since the construction of the Canso Causeway.) The Gaelic College defrays some of its expenses through sales of handicrafts such as tartan fabric, instructional materials, and so forth at its gift and craft shop.
My family had planned only a brief visit to the Gaelic College, but ended up being delayed considerably by a flat tire in the parking lot. That made us a captive audience for a class of beginning bagpipers lined up in the same parking lot, droning, while an instructor went up and down the lines trying to show them how to tune their instruments.
Watching the process (and trying not to listen!) strongly impressed me with the complexity of the task, and disabused me of any foolish notions I might have had, if I had any musical ability (which I don't), to dishonor the Scottish ancestors on on both sides of my family by trying to advance from playing a simpler wind instrument very badly to playing the bagpipes even worse.
If there's a lesson here, it's that activities or experiences that visitors think of as cultural "grace notes" or background elements in their experience of a place -- like the sound of bagpipes in Scotland -- may be, for local participants, something that has occupied a major portion of their lives in study, practice, and performance.
Thursday, 25 April 2013
Bad DHS idea of the day: Fees for crossing the USA-Canada land border
As part of its latest budget request, the US Department of Homeland Security has asked Congress to fund a study of the "feasibility" of charging "user fees" for the cost of "security screening" for people crossing the land border between the USA and Canada.
As is often the case with issues related to USA-Canada relations, the DHS proposal was barely deemed newsworthy in most of the USA, but generated front-page stories and instant outrage from Vancouver to Toronto and throughout Canada.
Since this is a budgetary proposal, it needs approval from the US Congress. Tell your Representative and Senators that people who travel to and from Canada aren't "using a service". We are exercising our right to travel, to leave our country, and to return. We shouldn't have to pay fees for required travel documents or for being searched and interrogated by agents of either country's government.
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
European parliamentarians question surveillance of air travellers
Today in Brussels the "LIBE" (civil liberties) committee of the European Parliament decisively rejected a proposal backed by European police and some European national governments (and heavily lobbied for by the USA) to establish systems throughout the EU, modeled on those in the USA, for government access to, and use of, airline reservation data (Passenger Name Records or PNRs). [See this video for some MEPs explanations of their votes.]
According to my friend MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, spokesperson on civil liberties for the Greens/ European Free Alliance, one of the political groups which opposed the proposal for an EU PNR scheme:
This disproportionate proposal would have been a grave departure from the constitutional presumption of innocence. Travel itineraries, hotel bookings, credit card details and other personal information of passengers would have been stored in police databases for five years. It would have created an automatic dragnet of this data on the basis of risk profiles without concrete suspicion and without a court order. This unacceptable paradigm shift in security policy would reverse the presumption of innocence, as well as breaching rulings of constitutional courts in Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Thankfully, MEPs have voted to prevent this and to defend the rule of law and fundamental rights in Europe.
MEPs approved transfers to the U.S. government of PNR data collected in the EU,out of fear that if they didn't, the US would either ground all such flights (unlike) or require visas or otherwise harass all visitors to the U.S. from the EU (a less draconian but nonetheless severe, and more credible, threat). Today's vote not to mandate such a system for flights to, from, or within the EU suggests that acquiescence by the European Parliament to the EU-US PNR agreement was given only under duress.
Meanwhile, reports like the following in the European press have brought my talk on C-SPAN earlier this month about how governments obtain and use PNR data to the attention of European citizens as well as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs):
- Brian Beary, Europolitics.com (5 April 2013): EU-US PNR deal «completely meaningless», says travel expert
- Gilbert Kallenborn, 01.net (12 April 2013): Les données personnelles des passagers aériens ne seraient pas assez protégées
French MEP Françoise Castex, Vice-President of the Legal Affairs Committee, submitted a formal priority question to the European Commission (the written equivalent of "question time" with government ministers in the U.K. Parliament) based on the information I obtained from FOIA and Privacy Act requests and my lawsuit against DHS and presented in my recent talk in Washington. The English translation of the original question in French is a bit rough, but gives the sense of the question:
11 April 2013
Question for written answer to the Commission
Françoise Castex (S&D)
Subject: PNR agreement and personal data
The US Government has just been prosecuted [I think this refers to my lawsuit - EH] over the agreement on the Passenger Name Record (PNR) of airlines, which has been in place between the EU and the US since 2012.
Although the PNR agreement was supposed to limit the US Government’s use of data, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be able to easily bypass the agreement because of the extensive access the DHS has to databases of companies which aggregate travel records from across the travel industry. The DHS could thus retrieve data from the US offices of Europe-based companies like Amadeus, which store their data and keep records of European travellers’ intra-EU movements.
Does the Commission not consider that, in allowing this, travel companies are constantly violating Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of personal data?
Moreover, there would be no log to show who accessed what data and from where. It would therefore be impossible to audit the DHS, especially as the DHS legally is not bound by the US Privacy Act on the issue.
If this poses a problem, what measures does the Commission intend to take to solve it?
The European Commission is required to respond in writing by 2 May 2013.
I expect that the answer will be similar to the answer given earlier this year by the European Commission to a question by MEP Castex regarding airlines tracking of IP addresses, which are routinely captured (with timestamps) in PNRs. According to Commissioner Reding:
Any processing of client data such as IP addresses must be in line with the national laws implementing the requirements of Directive 95/46/EC; inter alia personal data must be processed on legitimate grounds, for a specific purpose and must be proportionate to the aim pursued. The clients of the travel companies must be informed about the processing.
Without prejudice to the powers of the Commission as guardian of the Treaty, national data protection supervisory authorities are the competent bodies to monitor the application of the national measures implementing Directive 95/46/EC.
The Commission gave similar responses to questions asked by MEPs last year.
The Commission's deference to EU national data protection authorities is all well and good, except that:
- European national authorities aren't monitoring compliance with data protection laws by travel companies, and aren't enforcing their national laws even when they receive specific complaints against travel companies. MEP Castex has now forwarded her questions about IP address tracking by travel companies to the French national data protection authority CNIL. But in my case, the CNIL never even responded to my complaint (English; French) against Air France. Nor was any action taken by the respective national authorities on my complaints against KLM and Lufthansa.
- The European Commission itself has direct responsibility for supervision and enforcement of the EU Code of Conduct for Computerized Reservation Systems, but has completely neglected that responsibility. It's unclear to whom, or following what procedures, I or any other individual could make a complaint to the Commission about any of the ongoing violations of the Code of Conduct that pervade the operations of the CRSs and are inherent in their current architecture.
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
"Speak out now on the TSA's full-body scanners"
I'm quoted in Christopher Elliott's syndicated travel column today in the Chicago Tribune (and previously in the Washington Post and elsewhere) about the TSA's ongoing solicitation of public comments on its use of virtual strip-search machines and groping of travellers' genitals, breasts, and buttocks:
Speak out now on the TSA's full-body scanners
...A recent review of the comments suggested an overwhelming number in favor of abandoning AIT ["Advanced Imaging Technology", a/k/a virtual strip-search machines] and stopping the TSA’s policy of giving a prison-style pat-down to passengers who set off an alarm or who voluntarily opt out.
The TSA is trying to keep these comments to a minimum, say observers. They point to the TSA’s own blog post on the subject, published almost two weeks after the release of the rulemaking but deleted within minutes of being posted. After receiving questions from many travelers, as well as this reporter, about the missing post, the TSA republished the notice a week later — minus the links to the site where readers could leave a comment.
One reason the agency seems uncomfortable with a rulemaking is that it’s the first time the TSA has ever defined or offered an opportunity for passengers to comment on any aspect of the screening process, according to privacy activist Edward Hasbrouck.
"In this light, it’s likely that one reason the TSA has been so resistant to a public rulemaking process on AIT is the likelihood that it would open the door to renewed demands from consumer, privacy and civil liberties groups for a similar rulemaking on other aspects of the screening process," he says.
As was discussed in this televised forum I participated in earlier this month in Washington, the TSA has vigorously resisted having to justify its actions to the courts, or follow any defined rules. So the first step in addressing the many problems of the TSA is to bring the TSA within the rule of law, like any normal government agency.
Here are my suggestions for what to tell the TSA:
- Tell the TSA that travel is a right, not a privilege to be granted or denied by the government.
- Tell the TSA that searches or other conditions required for the exercise of your right to travel are subject to "strict scrutiny". The burden of proof is on the TSA to show that they are actually effective for a permissible purpose (not just e.g. to catch drugs, which is not supposed to be the TSA’s job) and that they are the least restrictive alternative that will serve that purpose.
- Tell the TSA how much it has cost you if you haven’t flown because you find the virtual strip-searches and/or the groping by checkpoint staff intolerable and/or traumatizing.
- Tell the TSA that its current and proposed “rules” are unconstitutionally vague. You can’t tell what is and isn’t prohibited, or what is and isn’t forbidden, at TSA checkpoints. If there are to be any requirements or prohibitions on what you can and can’t do, the TSA needs to spell them out, publicly, so that you don’t have to get arrested to find out whether something is against the law or not.
You can submit comments here until 24 June 2013. But please, do it today.
Don’t be put off by the long form. The only field on the comment form that is actually required appears to be your comment itself. You can type in the form, or attach longer comments as a file. If you prefer, you can also submit comments by e-mail (to Chawanna.Carrington@tsa.dhs.gov), postal mail (to Chawanna Carrington, Project Manager, Passenger Screening Program, Office of Security Capabilities, Transportation Security Administration, 701 South 12th Street, Arlington, VA 20598-6016), or fax (to 571-227-1931).
Monday, 22 April 2013
California legislature considers transit privacy and rules for motorists passing bicycles
Assembly Bill 179 (status) would extend the privacy protections provided by current California law for records related to RFID vehicle toll payment systems (e.g. Fastrak in the San Francisco Bay area) to RFID transit fare payment systems (e.g. Clipper Card in the SF. Bay area and TAP in Los Angeles). It should be obvious that records of the movements of transit passengers' bodies deserve at least as much privacy protection as records of the movements of motor vehicles. Neither the current nor the amended law would go far enough, as there's still no restriction on unauthorized private "reading" of RFID tags. But this is a no-brainer step in the right direction, and would set an important precedent in an area -- privacy law -- where California often leads the nation.
Assembly Bill 1371 (status) is a revised version of last year's SB1464, which would have required motorists passing bicyclists to allow at least three feet of clearance (good) but would also have allowed motorists to cross double yellow lines to try to pass bicyclists in what are otherwise no-passing zones (bad).
SB1464 was approved by the legislature, but vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown on the basis of objections to the legalization of trying to pass bicyclists in no-passing zones which I raised in letters to the Governor and the legislature and in testimony at hearings before the Assembly Transportation Committee.
I take credit for the fact that this year's AB 1371, while it would still legalize crossing double yellow lines to try to pass bicyclists in no-passing zones, would provide that motorists who do so assume all liability for any collision that occurs:
If a driver of a motor vehicle drives to the left of the [double yellow lines] to pass a person operating a bicycle and is involved in a collision, the driver of the motor vehicle that drove to the left of the markings is solely liable for any damages suffered by any person involved in the collision, regardless of the conditions of the roadway.
As written, that would still leave motorists wiggle room to claim that they aren't "involved in" or liable for crashes that they cause but which don't constitute "collisions" or in which the motor vehicle causing the crash doesn't actually collide with other vehicles. But it's still a major improvement in what was a gravely flawed, although well meaning, initiative.
[Update, 25 April 2013: I wasn't able to attend the committee markup session. But for reasons
I don't know, AB 1371 was amended again to remove the motorist-liability provisions, recreating the problems I (and the Governor when he vetoed it) objected to in last year's bill. If you're a Californian, tell your state legislators to reinstate the motorist-liability provisions that were included in the previous version of AB 1371.]
Sunday, 21 April 2013
The Amazing Race 22, Episode 8
Grindelwald (Switzerland) - Dresden (Germany) - Berlin (Germany)
This week The Amazing Race 22 sent the racers to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and made them answer questions about speeches on that site, facing the Berlin Wall, by U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Unfortunately, the views of the Brandenburg Gate and its surrounding area were framed to avoid showing the new Berlin Wall connected to the Brandenburg Gate, which was built by the U.S. in conjunction with a new U.S. Embassy next door that opened in 2008.
The new U.S.-built Berlin Wall isn't nearly as long or large as the old Soviet-built one, of course. But its symbolic similarity, especially in light of its location, is unmistakeable.
For my thoughts about the lessons for travellers of both the old and the new Berlin walls, and the German concept of "reisefreiheit" (freedom to travel), see my columns from previous visits to Berlin here and here.
The Amazing Race 22 moved on from Switzerland to to Berlin this week. But to conclude last week's discussion of the cost of travel in Switzerland, here's some specific advice for visitors to Geneva and "La Suisse Romande" (Francophone Switzerland):
The countries with the second, third, and fourth largest numbers of speakers of French as their mother tongue -- Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland respectively -- are all countries where French is a minority language nationally despite being dominant in some major cities: Montreal, Brussels, Geneva. (Most speakers of French are in Africa, many of them fluently bilingual or multilingual, but fewer of them speak French as their first language.)
Most of the wealth as well as most of the population of Switzerland is in the German-speaking regions, as that of Canada is in the English-speaking regions and that of Belgium is in the Dutch (Flemish) speaking regions. Justifiably or not, the Francophone minorities in Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland all share a defensiveness about the linguistic basis of their identity that disinclines them to learn other languages.
The use of French as the official working language of the U.N. offices in Geneva and many other Geneva-based international entities (and indeed the carefully cultivated role of Geneva itself as the city of diplomacy) is a significant part of the basis for the ability of French to resist total displacement by English as the language of diplomacy in other contexts.
Whether for these or other reasons, the fact is that far fewer native Francophones than speakers of most other European languages learn English. If they learn other languages, they are likely to start with other Romance (Latinate) languages, not English, German, or Dutch.
I've never felt unwelcome as an English speaker in France or any of these other Francophone regions, and people have always made their best effort to use whatever little English they might know and to understand my fractured French.
You can get around and have an enjoyable time in Geneva without needing to know any French. But even a little French will greatly enhance your visit, more so than knowing a little of a local language in many other parts of Europe.
The percentage of people on the street in Geneva who can give you directions in English is substantially lower than in Zurich or the other Switzerdeutsch areas visited by The Amazing Race 22 this season, just as the people on the street in Brussels who speak functional English are much more likely to be Dutch-speaking Flemish than Francophone Walloons.
The City Hostel in Geneva, where I stayed last month and on my previous visit in 2009, is the best deal in town at CHF63 (USD68) for a single room with shared toilet and bath, CHF77 (USD83) for a room with two twin beds and shared toilet and bath. It's almost always sold out, even in low season. I made my reservations a couple of months in advance, but other members of the U.S. Human Rights Network delegation waited a few weeks to make their reservations, and had to stay in places that were much more expensive and/or much further from the center of town.
Geneva is at the extreme tip of the country, connected to the rest of Switzerland only by a narrow neck and surrounded by France within a few miles in every other direction. So one possibility for visitors to Geneva, unlike those visiting most of the rest of Switzerland, is to stay across the border in France, where prices of everything including hotels are substantially lower.
Even if you stay in Switzerland, it might be worth a trip to a supermarket across the border in France if you want to stock your kitchen in a rented "self-catering" apartment for a week, or to a restaurant in France. The best meal I had in a week in Geneva, at the best price, was at a neighborhood bistro in a blue-collar mixed-race suburban "quartier" a short walk into France from the end of one of the Geneva street-car lines.
You should carry your passport whenever you cross the border, but there's no need to worry about border formalities or delays. Since my last visit in 2009, Switzerland has joined the Schengen Zone (which I previously discussed here). That means that all pretense of controls on movement across the Swiss land borders has been eliminated. The former customs and immigrations posts are in the process of being demolished, and new housing developments are sprouting up along the border in France for people who work in Geneva but can't afford Swiss housing prices.
Check the location and transit routes carefully, and consider the value of your time, before booking a cheaper hotel in the French suburbs of Geneva. Public transit in the Geneva area, as everywhere in Switzerland, is exceptionally good, but it's still a half hour or more by bus or tram (streetcar) from downtown Geneva to any of the various border crossings.
Public transit in Geneva is generally free for tourists as far as the French border, at least if you are staying at a legitimate hotel or hostel rather than an off-the-books Airbnb.com rental. There's also a free bicycle loan program, although sadly it only operates seasonally, from approximately May through October
At the Geneva airport (GVA), look for the inconspicuous automated kiosk next to the exit from the baggage claim area dispensing free tickets for the train from the airport into downtown. From the airport, board any train, and get off at the next stop, the Gare Cornavin. You'll be walking distance (or a short ride on one of the streetcars which stop in front of the mainline train station) from the city center. When you check in at your hotel or hostel, you should be given a free transit pass valid throughout Geneva for the duration of your stay. If you don't get one automatically, ask at the front desk or concierge.
Surprisingly, one of the few things that's genuinely affordable is cellphone service, including cellular data service. Lebara, a cellphone service provider targeting immigrants and international travellers whose services I've used before in the U.K. (and which also operates in France, Germany, Spain, and Australia, among other countries) now offers free SIM cards with local numbers in Switzerland as well. Incoming calls are free; outgoing calls within Switzerland are a fairly ordinary CHF0.35-0.45 (roughly 40-50 US cents) per minute. The real deal with Lebara is the price of outgoing international calls: calls to the USA are CHF0.03 (about 3 US cents) per minute, and calls to landlines in almost any country in Western Europe other than Switzerland are even cheaper! 1 GB of high-speed (3G) data and unlimited lower-speed (GPRS) data costs CHF15 (USD16) per month. As always when buying a local SIM card, don't leave the shop until you've made sure your new SIM card is activated and working (test it with actual incoming and outgoing calls), and that you know how to check your prepaid credit balance and buy more credit. Get the voicemail and text-message menus switched to English if that's an option.
If you are already going to Geneva, you probably already have your own list of things to see and do. Here are a few additional suggestions you might not have thought of:
On my previous visit to Geneva in 2009, I spent almost an entire day at the fascinating International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. When I visited Geneva again last month, the Red Cross museum was closed for a major expansion and a complete re-design of its exhibits. It's scheduled to re-open on 18 May 2013. If you visit the new exhibits, please leave a comment or send me a message about what they are like. Like most Swiss museums, it's expensive (CHF15, USD16 per adult), but the City Hostel and some other hostels have half-price vouchers for their guests.
Geneva is the site of the world's preeminent institute for research in high-energy physics, the Centre Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN). The USA abandoned construction of the half-completed "Superconducting Super Collider" in Texas, which had been planned to be larger, some years ago, leaving the 27 km (17 mile) diameter underground ring of superconducting magnets at CERN as the world's largest and most most powerful sub-atomic particle accelerator.
CERN has an interesting history which includes its own international treaty, pursuant to which it occupies a site which spans the Switzerland-France border.
CERN's facilities are scattered around the underground accelerator ring in several Swiss and French villages, but a new streetcar (tram) line which went into service just this year runs from alongside the Gare Cornavin in downtown Geneva to the main CERN campus.
A couple of buildings on either side of the road at the tram terminus have exhibits that are open to visitors Monday through Saturday, except holidays, without reservations. Science nerds, however, will want to get on one of the free daily 2-3 hour bus tours of the complex led by volunteer scientist guides.
Perhaps understandably, few scientists want to take time away from their research to play tour guide for casual visitors, and there is only one tour (in English) of CERN each day. If you try to make reservations on the CERN Web site, you'll always be told that the tours are sold out for months.
What you won't be told is that a small number of places on each CERN tour are held open for last-minute bookings such as by VIP visitors, and that there are always a few cancellations or no-shows.
Show up at the visitor center (in the lobby of the building on the left side of the road just past the tram terminus) as soon as it opens at 8 a.m., or call the visitor center, +41-22-767-7676, at 8 a.m., to get on the waiting list for that day's 10:30 a.m. guided bus tour. Once you are on the waiting list, you can spend the time while you wait in the other CERN exhibits, or go away and come back before 10:30.