Cleaner toilets for travelers? FF mileage obsessions, TSA Pre-Check now at 40 percent


Today we look at big data from the perspective of toilet usage.

Then, we take a look at the frequent-flier mile-obsessed fliers. Finally, we learn that TSA is now moving 40 percent of passengers through the Pre-Check lanes that have technology similar to that used pre-9/11.

A made-up toilet company raises legitimate questions about government data-tracking

OK, I admit it, this story is a stretch, but toilet sensor technology describes what is happening in the world of big data and information that is being collected about us. I assume that data collected by the toilet is not tied to a personal record, but in the future it might be.

A recent survey conducted by Bradley Corporation said customers form strong impressions of establishments with dirty bathrooms.

Almost three-fourths of consumers believe a bad restroom indicates poor management. Another two-thirds say it lowers their opinion of the company, shows the business doesn’t care about customers, and gives the impression the company is lazy or sloppy.

Another recent survey said cleanliness of bathrooms was an important factor when stopping to use facilities while on a road trip.

These recent surveys made me think that this story has a place on a travel blog. The privacy questions the data collection raises are universal.

What I find amazing is how data can be used. Everything from keeping toilets clean to planning where to sell or not sell beer in stadiums can be planned according to toilet analysis.

If sensors were to be as easily deployed as the website suggests, they could be used in not-so-anonymous settings like offices. Your employer could find out which drugs employees are taking, check to see if anyone shows up to work drunk, and figure out which female employees are expecting babies.

As individuals, we are already tracking our physical activity with Fitbits, our physical locations with cell phones, our eating habits with websites like MyFitnessPal, and even our genomes with services like 23 and Me. But there’s a critical line between the “quantified self movement” — in which people record as much personal metadata as possible — and public monitoring of our data.

A sensor in the convention center toilet is a lot more like a public surveillance camera than it is a private fitness app. But it wasn’t until I reached out to Quantified Toilet to learn more that I found out what was really going on.

Frequent fliers go to great lengths to earn miles

To what extremes will you go to earn frequent flier miles? This story highlights some of the most determined mileage collectors.

Airlines have made it more difficult to get free tickets (which still include some fees) in recent years by restricting schedules and upping the required miles. Next year, Delta Air Lines will base its frequent-flier program on ticket price rather than miles flown. Other airlines are expected to follow.

Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec said the change is to “reward customers that we value the most,” not thwart those who are “more astute in the rules of the programs.”

But the astute know other ways: test-driving cars, getting laser eye surgery, keeping money in online banks that offer miles instead of interest. Most of all, they use credit or debit cards that kick back a mile or two for every dollar spent.

To really rack up miles, the key is “manufactured spending”: using a card to buy the equivalent of cash, like a money order, then recycling that money back into your bank account.

Eric Ding, a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, got into collecting miles when he was a postdoctoral student at Harvard and his Austrian girlfriend worked in Europe.He moved money in and out of a Fidelity brokerage account that offered 50,000 miles per $100,000 in deposits and went on manufactured spending sprees — using high-mileage credit cards to buy refillable debit cards to fund online accounts and purchase gift cards to shop in online malls that offered even more points.

TSA: 40 percent Of U.S. travelers now get expedited screening

A few weeks ago, I wrote about TSA and its Pre-Check program. I said that the ultimate goal of TSA is have 70 percent of passengers going through Pre-Check. Frankly, as I wrote, everyone basically goes through a security check when they purchase a ticket and are screened against the terrorist watch list.

Now, TSA is halfway to the goal that I stated.

Forty percent of the U.S. traveling public now passes through expedited airport security screening lanes, due in large part to the expansion of the PreCheck program, Transportation Security Administration administrator John Pistole said Wednesday during a Senate committee hearing. Pistole predicted that a “majority” of passengers would benefit from expedited screening as TSA further expands PreCheck and other programs.

Winning favor among many frequent travelers, the PreCheck program allows “low-risk passengers,” in the words of Pistole, to pass through security checkpoints while leaving on their shoes, light outerwear and belts, and keeping laptops and allowable liquids in carry-on bags.