What Information is Hiding in Your Boarding Pass?


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.

AFP, Getty Images
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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