Tripped Up

I have an interesting anecdote about the persistence of data, the ramifications of a poor UI, and the unintended consequences of things talking to other things on one’s behalf.

I recently traveled from the Bay Area to Arizona on Southwest Airlines. The day before my flight, I received a flight confirmation email – but it came from a completely unrelated airline, and for travel dates that were slightly different from the days I was supposed to be traveling.

I confess, I momentarily freaked out. I hadn’t made the reservations myself, but I was pretty sure this couldn’t be right. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that this was a reservation for “Mary” – someone I didn’t know – who was traveling between cities on the other side of the country.

So, I emailed Mary to let her know what happened (her email address was on the confirmation), and suggested that perhaps she should contact the airline.

My involvement in this bogus trip didn’t stop there. The information in the reservation email propagated to a number of services, and they all came rushing to help me:

  • TripIt automatically scanned my Gmail account and generated an itinerary for Mary’s flight – a flight I wasn’t taking – which it emailed to me.
  • TripIt also let my network know about the trip.
  • Google started sending me notifications when Mary’s flight was delayed.
  • While I was in Arizona, Google Now began providing me cards of interesting things to do – on the opposite side of the country – based on Mary’s destination. This seemed particularly odd. Google Now should have known where I was based on my phone’s location.

I too called the airline to report my incorrect receipt of Mary’s itinerary – mostly because I wanted to know what could have possibly happened. The helpful customer service rep pieced together the likely succession of events. The airline had my email address on file from when I had traveled with them (just one time!) seven years ago. While booking the flight, the reservationist probably incorrectly pulled my email address – which is similar to Mary’s – from “one screen to the other”. According to the service rep, their system “intelligently” auto populates email addresses, but often makes mistakes across screens. And so, my Gmail address was inadvertently added to this reservation, along with two other (presumably correct) addresses. Once Gmail received the reservation confirmation, my interconnected applications started talking to each other.

One erroneous usage of my email created a cascade of information about a trip I didn’t take and a person I don’t know.

One erroneous usage of my email created a cascade of information about a trip I didn’t take and a person I don’t know.

Aside from the noise the emails and notifications created in my own digital landscape, it’s obviously an undesirable outcome from a privacy perspective. It provided me, a complete stranger, a lot of details about this “Mary” person, among them: name and gender, email and frequent flyer #, dates she would be away from home, and more.

Now Google+ is helpfully suggesting Mary to me as someone “You may know”. And in a way, I do.