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What Information is Hiding in Your Boarding Pass?

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Frequent flyers are familiar with the embedded 2D barcode that appears on any boarding pass, whether it’s issued on a flimsy piece of paper or scanned through your smartphone. Whichever method you prefer to utilize—high-tech or old-school—you can be sure that the airline is taking note of the information that’s contained within that barcode.

In a recent article published on KrebsOnSecurity, reporter/computer security expert Brian Krebs investigated just what kind of personal information those barcodes reveal about a passenger. In 2005, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) issued a mandate to replace magnetic strips with bar-coded boarding passes (BCBP) for travelers around the globe, and by 2010 they had completed that task. As the IATA's website states, barcodes “offer more convenience for the passenger. Because they don’t need to be printed on expensive paper stock and facilitate off-airport check-in, they save the industry up to $1.5 billion every year.” 

If you want to see what personal data is actually stored in your barcodes, Inlite Research’s website allows you to upload pictures of your boarding pass (as well as your driver’s license, military ID, postal barcode, and QR codes) and decodes it, using HTML. The results aren’t exactly shocking: Your name, seat number, departing and arriving airports, sequence number (what number person were you to board), record locator, and frequent flyer number are revealed to whomever reads the barcode. And while it’s hardly the type of secure personal information that could lead to identity theft, you do leave yourself open to some limited information exposure if you happen to leave your boarding pass in your seat pocket, like so many of us do, or throw it in the trash after deplaning—particularly when it comes to your frequent flyer number.

Using this number (which can and should be kept private), it would be simple for anyone to log into your account and gain access to your contact information and future flights. Yes, they’d first have to know your password, but this can be changed rather easily as they have the frequent flyer number itself and can bypass a security question. (Getting into your account would also give them the power to cancel or change any upcoming flights.)

Another blog, Fusion, researched Krebs’ post and contacted various airlines as to why one’s full frequent flyer number appears in the barcode, but no representative would give a definitive answer. “Barcodes are not inherently secure or insecure,” Inlite Research’s vice president of marketing told Fusion. “Barcodes are a dumb way to package information into an image. The nature of the information is up to the people who use it. Most barcodes are boring.”

For those who prefer to err on the safe side while traveling this holiday season and beyond, it’s best to use your smartphone at check-in so that you don’t have to worry about someone lifting secure information from a paper boarding pass—and moving you right next to the lavatory for your next flight.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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