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    Travel App’s Seat-Booking Feature Faces Turbulence for TMI

    Experts say revealing passenger information violates privacy, but Umetrip calls its controversial feature ‘social innovation.’
    Jun 12, 2018#privacy#transport

    If you want to know more about the people sitting around you on your next flight, there’s an app for that — but not everyone is on board with its newest feature.

    The popular Chinese aviation app Umetrip — which allows travelers to view the personal information of their fellow flyers, including names, hometowns, star signs, and more — has triggered a host of privacy concerns, Beijing Youth Daily reported Tuesday. The social function on the flight-tracking and online check-in app also allows users to communicate with each other through private chats before their journey.

    Li Tiejun, an expert in personal data protection who wished to protect the name of his employer, told Sixth Tone that Umetrip’s social feature is a violation of people’s privacy. “If users are not given the choice to share their information, then the app is sharing their data illegally,” he said.

    Umetrip came under scrutiny after Aviation Story, an air travel blog with over 4.5 million social media followers, posted an article on its WeChat account on Monday saying the feature could make passengers uncomfortable and even prompt paranoia. “It’s like you’re being watched by others,” the article said.

    Netizens have voiced similar privacy concerns and called for the function to be removed. “I don’t want to know who might be in the same cabin as me — and more than that, I don’t want others to know I’m in the cabin with them,” novelist Ma Boyong posted to his 4 million fans on microblog platform Weibo. Meanwhile, in the Aviation Story article’s comment section, some people accused it of being “biased” and “one-sided” in attempting to “stir public opinion in a way that might kill the new function.”

    In a statement on Monday, Umetrip defended its feature as “social innovation,” and in a follow-up post Tuesday, the app’s developers claimed that the function had been introduced to meet the needs of citizens who might require assistance while traveling. They added that users aren’t required to divulge their real identities and can disable the function anytime if they don’t wish to engage with other passengers.

    Aviation expert Lin Zhijie acknowledged that Umetrip’s “virtual cabin” is a useful and innovative attempt to encourage socializing that may be welcomed by some travelers. However, he also echoed the more common sentiment that the company may be venturing into questionable territory.

    “Leaking personal data could result in heavy fines for the platform,” Li told Sixth Tone.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: A flight attendant serves beverages on a flight from Haikou, Hainan province, to Zhengzhou, Henan province, Jan. 13, 2017. VCG)