Podcast #171 — Data Privacy and Rental Cars; 2021 Travel Planning Tips

Wait! I need to unpair my iPhone!

Was all set to head to San Diego for a week’s break from Chicago’s grey January and then looked at the COVID restrictions… and then pivoted to Arizona. With people starting to think about 2021 travel, I pulled together my top 5 travel planning tips. Slow vaccine roll-out will probably keep us restricted for longer than we thought. Andrea Amico of Privacy4Cars joins us to talk about the dangers of leaving our data behind in rental cars. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go over to the Subscribe section on the right to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #171:

This Week

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you again from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois. Stayed off the road over the entire holiday season which let me skip the TSA’s new post-lockdown checkpoint record of 1.3 million on January 3rd, the last Sunday of the holiday season — though, to be fair,  this is only just over half the 2.4 million passengers who flew on the same Sunday last year. And with every US airline except Delta now back to selling middle seats, it makes sense that load factors also ratcheted up over the holidays. I haven’t seen any industry-wide numbers yet, but American’s COO did say that the load factor on their 737 Maxes over the last week of the holiday season was 90%. Now, most of those Maxes are flying between LGA and MIA, always a busy holiday route, but I’ve seen reports of many other packed flights, as well as the much higher load . I was never a big fan of completely full flights pre-coronavirus and, as you can imagine, am even less so now pre-widespread vaccine distribution. So, I’m not too bothered that we didn’t try to get out of town over the holidays.
  • However, staying in town through the rest of January is a whole different thing because January is absolutely the worst part of Chicago’s winter. So, after  Thanksgiving weekend, on what used to be called Cyber Monday when we actually shopped in physical stores, instead of trolling through Amazon, I was trolling through travel sites looking for cheap flights to someplace warm the 3rd wk of Jan. I figured that’d be long enough for any holiday COVID spike to work its way through the system.
  • I’d had some friends who’d gone down to Mexico, felt safe in the tourist zones, didn’t have any problems, came back healthy; but I don’t do well sitting on a beach for more than a day or two and I wanted to keep it a bit simpler, so we decided to stay in the US, which pretty quickly narrowed our search to Southern California, South Florida, and Arizona. Since we’d spent time last winter in both Arizona and Florida, we decided to do California and go as far down the coast as we could get, which was San Diego.  And, as luck would have it, Southwest had cheap direct flights from Chicago Midway and I had Southwest travel credits from one of last spring’s flight cancellations burning a hole in my virtual pocket, so *boom* I booked it
  • On, what turned out to be, 3 days before the governor locked down most of California. But a friend hit the ground there a week before Christmas and said “Eh, it’s not a problem.” So, we stayed the course and didn’t really pay any attention to it until after New Years when we thought, you know, we should book a place to stay. And that’s when we started to pay attention. Bike and kayak rental places were open as “outdoor recreation” businesses. But vacation rental and hotel booking sites all pointed to the California Public Health Department statement — “no hotel or lodging entity in California shall accept or honor out-of-state reservations for nonessential travel” which our January snowbird getaway definitely didn’t qualify as. Would things ease up in a couple of weeks? The trend lines on the state’s COVID website didn’t seem to be pointing in that direction.
  • So last Monday when I received another blast of airline sales emails, it seemed like the right time for a pivot. X-ing off California, we were back to Florida and Arizona. We talked to friends already down in Florida; they said the south beaches were already filling up with snowbirds, so we opted for drier sand and swung our Southwest flights over to Phoenix.  
  • But since we’d been in Phoenix last winter and continuing in the spirit of visiting not-quite-A-list places in the US we’ve never been while weaving around quarantines, we’re driving further south down I-10 to Tucson. We’re running the same travel planning play we did for our August trip to Michigan’s UP — focus on outdoor activities like hiking and biking, have back-ups in case of last-minute closures, and above all, build a list of microbreweries with outdoor seating.
  • Bridge Music — Say Their Names – Love and Remember by SackJo22 (c) copyright 2020 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/SackJo22/62230 Ft: DJ Lang

Following Up

  • Back at the beginning of December when the Pfizer vaccine approval was imminent and the Moderna approval wasn’t far behind, most travelers — myself included — got a bit giddy and started to think about the world opening up in the spring, the summer at the latest. Fast forward 30 days and, happy new year, that initial blast of vaccine optimism melted when it met the ugly realities of last-mile logistics. Spelunking through the stream of low-fare emails from American and Southwest and Delta and United and Iberia and British Airways filling my inbox, the consensus across airline demand forecasters seems to be that nothing’s going to change until the end of May. But even that doesn’t explain why, say, American, sends out an email pushing “Plan a European Vacation” that includes spring fares (March, April, May fares) to London, Manchester, and Madrid. I don’t know anyone who expects European vacation travel to open up in the next 3-4 months. Give credit to Delta for highlighting more achievable destinations — Cancun, the Bahamas, Phoenix, and just about every airport in Florida with a runway long enough to handle a jet. 
  • What will be as interesting is what the airlines and hotels do about elite status protection if travel continues to be slow through the summer. Remember that last spring, after it was clear that business travel was canceled for most of 2020, all the big travel companies grandfathered everyone into their status for this year. What you earned in 2019, you kept through this year, 2021. But now what? We talked about this a bit in the November episode (#169) when the companies made their opening bid, knocking 20-30% off elite qualifying clip levels. Kinda like the low-fare sales — it’ll be interesting to see what they offer come May.
  • We’ve talked in prior episodes about the challenges of planning a trip during COVID — deciphering lockdown rules; parsing what can seem to be the almost theological differences between stay-at-home advisories vs. orders. And after all that, trying to keep up-to-date on last-minute changes. Things are changing so fast — open, shut; outdoor seating vs just doing takeout — that the normal crowdsourced tools we’d use — things like Google Maps, Yelp — can’t keep up because they don’t give a real-time view. The Foursquare app used to do it, but since they split Swarm from Foursquare, it seems that the real-time data is now sold just to business customers to target mobile ads. But, one app that I use does provide a real-time view into some traffic — Uptappd. Yes, it’s just craft beer nerd traffic — people checking in their beers at tap rooms and beer bars — but that’s a kind of traffic that I’m pretty interested in.  After our pivot to Tucson, I wanted to see what beer places were open for service, not just take-out. I could’ve spent time clicking around the app, but instead, I decided to put one of my lockdown self-improvement projects to use. Over the fall, I’d taken some on-line Python programming courses on Coursera, so I wrote a short program that pulled the most recent check-ins from the Tucson area and started making a list of places that are open. I probably could’ve made that list quicker by just plunking away on the app, but not with the same sense of achievement.
  • We talked about COVID-19 vaccination and test certification in the last episode. Over the last month, it seems that proof of negative test results rather than of vaccinations is the new hotness. Canada, the UK, and now the US are the latest countries requiring a negative COVID test for inbound passengers. It makes sense. The CDC released a paper in November — in one of my favorite publications, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (I’ll link to it in the show notes) — saying that temperature and symptom screening at airports is pretty worthless; it only picked up 1 case for every 85,000 passengers screened. So not hard for the switch to pre-flight testing to be more effective. For Canada and the UK, though, they’ve layered the test requirements on top of their existing 14-day quarantine requirements, which just adds to the confusion — especially since the Canadian government gave travelers one week’s notice of the new testing requirement. I haven’t seen the US regs yet, but the Canadian rules say you must have “proof in hand” of a negative test result, and that proof can be either electronic or paper. You gotta think that, pretty quick, that “proof in hand” has gotta default to “proof on phone” otherwise, forged paper results are going to be the new fake IDs from our teens. Last November, French cops busted a ring selling fake test results at CDG. The going rate was €150-300 which converts to something like $180-370. That compares to $125 for a good fake driver’s license.  Since the last episode, the Caribbean country of Aruba was the first country to standardize on one of the digital passport apps, CommonPass, the one backed by the World Economic Forum, the Davos gang, and, we mentioned, also used by United for their EWR-LHR flight. But then Sing Air picked its rival, Travel Pass from IATA, to use on flights to/from Malaysia. So it still seems like, when it does go to “proof on phone”, we’re gonna need to set aside some memory screen space for a bunch of apps.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge music — Staying Positive by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2019 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/jlbrock44/59438 Ft: greg_baumont

Leaving Data Behind in The Rental Car

  • A couple of weeks back, I retweeted a news article – the third suspect charged in the fatal shooting of a retired Chicago fireman during a carjacking was caught because he’d synced his phone to the audio system of the stolen car.  I dunno — fleeing a murder but worrying about getting a ticket for not using hands free.  I dunno. Good they caught the bad guy, but what about us law-abiding frequent travelers? When the Hertz or Avis person walks up to me at the car return lane, they always remind me not to leave anything behind; to remember to take my sunglasses and my mobile phone. But they never remind me to delete all the data I synced to the car. 
  • And with more of our lives getting stored in our phones, I asked Andrea Amico, founder of the company Privacy4Cars, to come onto the podcast to talk about the privacy problems at the intersection of cars and smartphones.
    • Mark: Andrea, how did you get involved in this space?
    • Andrea: One of the companies that used to run was one of the largest used car inspection companies. We inspected a lot of vehicles that were ready to be sold. I just noticed that people were leaving their digital lives behind.
    • Mark: We first talked about the privacy/security issues around pairing your smartphone with your car rental about four years ago. Bluetooth-enabled entertainment systems were just becoming more common in rental car fleets as hands-free call laws became widespread. Even today, the first thing I do is to sync my iPhone. And I’ve noticed more times than not, the sync slots are all full — personalized names, Jan’s iPhone, Timmy’s iPhone. You end up having to delete at least one of them to make room for yours. And then, once paired, most phones by default, end up downloading all your contacts and your phone numbers and things like that. So, Jan and Timmy have left behind all of their contacts and all their phone numbers and that’s just bad in so many ways.
    • Andrea: When you sync your phone through Bluetooth or you plug it into the USB port or now, in some newer cars, you just walk into the car and the car automatically sniffs your phone and start syncing to it, including those with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. When that happens, you are creating a mini-clone of your phone inside the vehicle.
    • Mark: What other information are people leaving behind when they don’t clear themselves out of a rental car?
    • Andrea: All sorts — your phone book, your call logs, the text messages, including the body, meaning the actual text of the text messages; that stuff will be left behind. But also all sorts of meta data that allows criminals or law enforcement or just people who want to snoop on you to re-identify you, anything from the identifiers of your phones which are unique, your Bluetooth MAC address. Not to mention, of course, all your navigation data. I mean, you can reconstruct where people have been, just by data that has been stored in the infotainment system. And then you have, whether you are on Twitter and Facebook and what are the handles of those things, which are the last photos you have taken? What files have you synced, the emails, calendar entries. There’s all sorts of stuff that people really don’t understand that they’re living behind.
    • Mark: But when people do delete pairings are they deleting all that information? Or is there some data still retained in that vehicle?
    • Andrea:  By and large, deleting the data following the manufacturer’s directions is helpful in preventing third parties to having access. And so if there is anything left behind, it requires a much deeper forensic type of analysis that is typically not accessible. But for most people, following the manufacturer’s directions on how to remove the data, it is a very easy to do and very effective defense against getting their data being in the hands of somebody else.
    • Mark: That’s where Privacy4Cars comes in. That’s where your app comes in — helping people get that right?
    • Andrea: Yes, we have a free app that people can download, and you can just search for Privacy4Cars on the Apple App Store or Google Play, depending what kind of phone you have, and download it for free.
    • Mark: The last time on the podcast we talked about this topic was a little over a year ago, October 2019.  I’d gotten a notice from Hertz that they had changed their terms and conditions. I noticed that Hertz had specifically carved out liability from me leaving information from a Bluetooth pairing. And now, on one hand, I could see that point. I’ve actively and voluntarily synced my phone to the car and in doing so, caused my information to be downloaded. But at what point does that sort of digital maintenance, clearing personal identifiable information, after every rental become part of the rental company’s overall maintenance responsibility, like checking the oil levels and the tire pressure.
    • Andrea: I believe that the time has already passed, and it’s been in the past for at least a year, right? At least, the passage of California Consumer Privacy Act. And probably you can go further back in the past because of other types of regulations. And there are some regulators who have actually spoken about this. So in the United States, you have the FTC that has issued already four guidances on the need to delete personal information. In Europe, they went as far as to give a guideline that mandates the removal of the personal information. Beyond rental, when people are traveling, sometimes they rent, sometimes they ride-share, and very often it happens to me that I in an Uber or Lyft and you have a very nice driver that tells you, “Hey, you need to fill up the tank on your battery? Here’s a cable.” And the first thing I do is glance —  where does the cable end up? If it goes into the lighter, that’s only power. So yes, I’ll recharge my phone. But if it goes straight  into the USB port of the car, don’t charge the phone unless you’re really desperate, because as soon as your phone powers back up, it will start downloading all your information into a stranger’s car. So you definitely don’t want to do that.
    • Mark: Andrea Amico, founder of Privacy4Cars.com, you can find his app on the Apple App store and on Google Play. Andrea, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.
    • Andrea: Thank you. Mark. I really enjoyed talking to you.
  • Bridge music — Latinium by Javolenus (c) copyright 2020 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Javolenus/62650 Ft: NiGiD

2021 Travel Planning Pro Tips

  • I’ve been talking about travel planning in the time of COVID across maybe 6 months of episodes. And since January is always a big travel month, especially this year with some vouchers from last spring’s flight cancellations coming up on their 12-month expiration dates, combined with 10 months of pent-up demand and another 6, maybe 9 months to go, I thought I’d pull all my planning tips together here — and probably in a blog post after I get back from Tucson.
  • First, book now. As I said earlier, there’s a steady stream of sales out there right now as airlines, hotels, and rental car companies are looking for cash to get through the start of the year. There are great domestic deals now, and if you can part with some cash now, good international deals for the second half of the year. Prices are only going to go up as vaccine rates improve, and that pent-up demand overwhelms any squeamishness about sitting next to a stranger. I’m eyeing that same American ORD-BCN 787 non-stop that I wasn’t able to take at the end of last September. The deals aren’t as smoking as they were last March when the travel world was in a freefall; the airlines have gotten a little smarter over the past year. But with cancellation fees still waived, there’s not much risk. 
  • Second, check your destination’s health requirements — and keep checking until you leave. Many of the airlines have built good web resources that summarize any restrictions by destination. Of the US majors, I think United’s is the easiest to use but I think American’s is the most complete. They actually link out to a Canadian company, Sherpa, that took my Arizona itinerary and noted that, while there’s no quarantine restrictions in Arizona, there are when I return to Chicago.  Delta’s is pretty good too. I’ll put links to them in the show notes. But you can’t check once and be done. We talked at the top of the show about Canada putting in a new testing requirement with 7-days notice. And domestically, states are changing restrictions weekly. One trick I’ve talked about is to start following your destination’s local newspapers on Twitter to get any early warnings on anything new. 
  • Third, read the cancellation rules a lot more closely. Being nimble and able to react to changes at your destination — like Irene and I did with our pivot from San Diego to Tucson — depends on being thoughtful about the cancellation risks you take. Right now, flights have the lowest cancellation risk; Airbnb and vacation rentals, the highest. Hotels are in-between. Our default strategy then is to book the flight as soon as we can, don’t do pre-paid hotel rooms or car rentals, and wait as long as we can before booking an Airbnb.
  • Fourth, overload your itinerary with outdoor activities like hiking and biking so last-minute closures or restrictions don’t leave you aimlessly flipping through the hotel TV channels. It was the big trend last summer — airlines dialed down flights between big city airports like the ORD-LGA run and toward beaches and mountains. And it continues — all the imagery in the airline and hotel “flash sale” emails over the past couple of weeks. But it does mean spending more time trolling the AccuWeather and Weather Channel web sites because an outside-heavy itinerary is more vulnerable to big storm fronts.
  • And finally, stay flexible, expect delays, and be patient. If there’s anything we learned from 2020, it’s that something will screw up your plans — a positive COVID test will shut down the restaurant you really wanted to eat at, capacity restrictions will mean a line to get into something that was top of your list. Have back-up plans and give everyone you meet the benefit of the doubt. Like you, they’re just trying to get through this safe and sound.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #171
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • In this episode’s tech notes, if you check out the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of my interview with Andrea Amico courtesy of my free tier of Amazon Web Services which includes 60 minutes a month of their Transcribe service. I learned about it when watching a session during their virtual Re:Invent conference. Back in episode #147, I talked about going to it in person in Las Vegas a couple of years ago — me and 50,000 other attendees, mostly pudgy, pasty-faced guys power walking up and down the strip, backpacks strapped down tight, ignoring the showgirls on the corner so they wouldn’t be late to, say, the sold-out tutorial on best practices for ingesting streaming data from IoT devices into AWS’ time series database. Less stressful, though less entertaining this year. Anyhow, watching the session on Transcribe got me thinking about how I could use it for the interviews I’ve done over the past 12 months. I’ve started on the most current episodes, working my way back. So far I have three done –this interview with Andrea, episode #167’s interview with Matt Schulz about travel credit cards, and episode #166’s interview with Emily Thomas about the meaning of travel. I’ll keep chipping away at the backlog as my 60 free minutes a month allows.
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