Introduction

The holiday travel season is approaching and more and more Americans are turning to the Internet to plan their trips. In fact, sixty-three percent of American Internet users report using the Internet to make plans, book reservations or purchase tickets.1 All this online activity may save consumers time and money, but it does come with one big condition: travelers have to share a lot of personally identifiable information (PII). Why is this cause for concern?

Personally identifiable information (PII) is any information that could potentially be used to identify, locate or contact a specific person. Examples include name, social security number, date and place of birth, address, phone number, sex, race, mother’s maiden name, financial information, medical, criminal and educational or employment history.

In this information age, PII is a valuable asset, and consumers need to keep it safe to protect their good name and their good credit. There are legitimate reasons for travel-related businesses to collect PII but, unfortunately, as the numbers of online transactions increase, so do the opportunities for businesses to misuse, misplace, or fail to protect PII.

To decide which Web sites to trust, consumers need to know how the companies they choose to do business with plan to use, share and safeguard their PII. Online privacy policies supposedly provide this information, but the degree to which they are helpful varies considerably from site to site.

From May to June 2007, NYPIRG’s Cyber Street Smart campaign studied the privacy policies of 275 travel Web sites with an eye towards determining two things: 1) How well the policies inform consumers as to how PII will be handled by the company, and 2) How much control consumers will have over their PII once it has been entrusted to the company via their Web site.

This paper highlights the best and the worst practices we encountered. In it we grant “steel door" awards to business practices and privacy policy features that safeguard customer PII or empower consumers to keep their PII locked up tight. We also bestow "screen door" awards on business practices and privacy policy features that may leave customers exposed or uninformed. It also provides travelers with tips to help them make street-smart decisions about which companies to do their online business with.

  1. http://www.pewinternet.org/trends/Internet_Activities_8.28.07.htm.
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