ADVERTISEMENT

Who really believes that fliers lose 12,000 laptops a week?

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
blog_larryponemon_original.jpg

This summer an eye-popping statistic was reported by several reporters and bloggers, including ones at the Associated Press, CNN.com, and WSJ.com. Here's the Chicago Tribune's version:

More than 12,000 laptops are lost each week at U.S. airports, according to a study conducted for Dell by the Ponemon Institute, a research think tank. Only one-third of laptops lost and found in airports are reclaimed, the study said.

Hmm…12,000 laptops a week is an enormous number of laptops.

Skeptical, I called the man who put together the study: Larry Ponemon, founder of the Ponemon Institute.

I learned that Larry has a different definition for the word "lost" than the one in the dictionary.

[Update 10:40 a.m. ET.: Larry's response has been added to the bottom of this post.]

[Update: Sept. 16: A WSJ.com review by Carl Bialik and a follow-up study find that far fewer laptops are lost than the press release said. Vindication!]

When Larry uses the word "lost," he mainly means what happened to his laptop ten months ago.

Larry was passing through a security checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare airport, juggling a large garment bag, another bag, and his laptop. After screening, he picked up his belongings in a typical rush. He walked about 30 feet from the checkpoint when someone shouted, "Hey Mister, you stole my computer!"

It turns out that Larry had picked up the wrong laptop. The two men swapped machines and parted grumpily.

By Larry's reckoning, two laptops were lost. He says a laptop is lost if it is "at least temporarily and knowingly out of my possession."

I disagree. I think he and the other guy each misplaced, or accidentally swapped, their laptops. The laptops hadn't disappeared long enough to be "lost."

Larry politely insists that if a laptop is out of your control, even momentariliy, then the data inside has been left defenseless.

Okay. Some laptops are temporarily lost and some are permanently lost. Fine. There's still a major problem: The press release outright misled reporters when it said that most laptops are never reclaimed. Here's the damning quote:

"A new study conducted by the Ponemon Institute has found that more than 10,000 laptops are lost in the 36 largest US airports each week, and nearly 70 percent of those laptops are never reclaimed."

But that's not what the study said!

At major airports, such as LAX and O'Hare, workers at Lost & Found offices guessed that roughly two-thirds of laptops that end up in Lost & Found offices are never reclaimed. Yet Larry told me that most of the "lost" 12,000 laptops a week never end up in Lost & Found offices. The study didn't publish an estimate of how many laptops are temporarily lost either.

Confused? I don't blame you. Travel reporters and bloggers were confused, too. Many mistakenly reported that most of the laptops lost at airports are permanently lost.

Curious how the Institute came up with its 12,000-laptops-a-week figure? I hope so. It's an amusing little story.

Larry's team decided not to ask for official statistics from Lost & Found offices or from any spokespeople at any airport, airline, or government agency. Larry says his team "did try to go through official channels, but that seemed to stall the project."

Larry's team instead interviewed janitors, baggage handlers, and TSA screeners over many months at large and small airports. His team didn't care about the "authority" of the people being interviewed. The opinion of, say, a part-time janitor who had only been working at an airport for a week was as valued as the opinion of, say, a security officer working at the airport for five years.

Larry says there is a strong precedent for conducting a study in the manner he chose. His type of "benchmark study" is commonly done when sociologists "don't know the size and make-up of a population and doubt that their survey samples are representative of the larger pool." Larry is a former partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers and a respected researcher, so I'll defer to him on those points.

But I ask you: Is it believable that 12,000 laptops are permanently lost at airports every week? When the statistic appeared on the news site Digg.com, several readers questioned the claim.

For example, one reader said:

"10,000 / 7 days a week = 1428 laptops per day or 59 every hour. how can this be possible in the most secured/patrolled and VIDEOed checkpoints in the world?"

A different reader on Digg defended the statistic by doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation with government statistics:

55.5 million people flew in the month February of 2008 (Feb is usually the slowest month, by the way), that's 13.875 million per week. Assume 20 percent of them had laptops, that roughly 2.8 million laptops per week going through the airport, and if 10,000 are lost, that's only 0.36%, or roughly 1 in 278 lose their laptop. You think that's so wildly out of line (remember I picked the slowest month the airlines have)?

Is this reader right in believing that 12,000 laptops are stolen at airports every week? Well, some other people also agree. For instance, a spokesman for the Airports Council International North America, who was interviewed by AviationWeek.com, said that roughly 3.5 million business travelers fly each week. "Only less than one half of one percent...would have to lose their laptops to reach the 12,000 a week number," he says.

Here's my take: What the Digg reader is essentially saying is that about one out of every 278 of all passengers at a major airport today lost his or her laptop today. Or, to use the second example, roughly 1 in about 340 business travelers at a major airport today lost his or her laptop today.

Imagine what these examples mean in real life. Think about the last time you were at a large airport. Every hour, there were a few hundred people passing through each section of the airport that you visited. How often have you ever seen a laptop lying unattended in one of those sections? If you follow the logic of these examples, you should see at least one laptop piling up every hour or so on average at every major gathering place at an airport.

Laptops by check-in counters. Laptops by gates. Laptops at bars. Laptops in bathroom stalls.

Did journalists and bloggers question the statistic? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only print newspaper I found whose reporter (namely, Mike Maciag) called officials at a couple airports to ask their opinions. Maciag interviewed Orzy Theus, public information manager for Atlanta's main airport, who said, "I think the credibility of the methodology is really questionable."

My favorite parts of his article are when it contrasts official data with the Ponemon Institute's data.

For example:

At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, 276 laptops were turned into the airport's lost and found last year, 269 of which were returned, according to the Washington Airports Authority.

The Ponemon Institute study says, in contrast, that 450 laptops are lost at Reagan National airport every week. Most of those 450 were not reclaimed, if one believes the press release (which one shouldn't).

That's quite a difference! Only 276 laptops lost and nearly all of them reclaimed in one year, versus about 23,400 lost—and a majority of them not reclaimed—in one year.

Atlanta and Detroit airport spokespeople also reported very low numbers of lost laptops. (Larry would likely interrupt at this point to say that such official statistics probably fail to count the many times that laptops are lost, stolen, or misplaced at airports without being reported by travelers.)

Props to Patrick Thibodeau of ComputerWorld, who called experts to put the study in context, and to the folks at an AviationWeek.com, who tried to spell out the details of the study and who posted a link to the full report.

Disappointingly, a couple of the most visited travel blogs didn't put the statistic in context or express any skepticism. Gadling reprinted it and so did USA Today's Today in the Sky blog. (On the other hand, Jaunted, Gridskipper, and Christopher Elliott ignored the statistic entirely, which was probably the right approach.) One non-journalist travel blogger, Mark Peacock at BoardingArea.com, said he was skeptical about the study. Victor Godinez of the Dallas Morning News also expressed doubts in a blog post.

[UPDATE Aug. 22, 10:40 a.m. ET: Larry Ponemon has asked for an opportunity to respond to this blog post. I've added his response, here:]

I appreciate the coverage in Sean's blog, especially the excellent photo of me on my boat at Torch Lake. A good friend and mentor told me a long time ago that you have to have a "thick skin" to do controversial research. Here are just a few points that need to be made about Sean's interpretation of our research.

Sean's blog piece diminishes the risk associated with lost laptops that are ultimately recovered. His article suggests that we have blown out of proportion the risk associated with a temporarily missing laptop. The fact is it only takes seconds to extract sensitive or confidential information from a computer that leaves the owner’s custody. This is why our study's numbers include laptops that are recovered. This is also why major news media found our study's results compelling enough to print.

We stand behind our research methods. Since airports do not have statistics that track lost or stolen laptops, we surveyed airport employees who are in the front lines of this issue. We believe that these employees are an excellent source for understanding the prevalence of travelers who leave their laptops behind or report their laptops missing.

Our study is successful because it has raised awareness among travelers in the United States and abroad. Clearly the airport environment is conducive to security risks because people are traveling with portable computers that contain sensitive or confidential information. Think about it! What other public facility exists where so much data is in one place at one time?

Sean's article is entertaining. However, as a research institute that studies privacy and data protection, we believe the issue of lost or missing laptops to be a serious risk to companies and to the people whose information is on those computers. In other words, this is no laughing matter.

Respectfully,

Dr. Larry Ponemon

Chairman & Founder, Ponemon Institute.

What do you think? Feel free to post a comment below.

Keep reading
Travel Tips

Alitalia rumors: What's next for the Italian airline?

Troubled Italian airline Alitalia is continuing to fly thanks to a nearly half-billion dollar investment by the government this spring—which European officials have challenged as unfair. Flights this month should not be affected by backroom talks. To avoid strikes, the government has postponed any decisions until the end of the month, says Reuters. This fall, the airline may be put under "special administration", which is similar to bankruptcy in the U.S., explains Reuters. Then, Alitalia might receive up to $1.5 billion from private investors, says the newspaper Il Giornale, without naming sources. Potential investors include Air One, a profitable Italian competitor that we've blogged about before, and Lufthansa, the profitable German carrier. Here's hoping there's a way to save the national airline, making it stronger without harming budget travelers. "Brand Italy" has a powerful pull worldwide. It's a shame that no one has yet figured out how to make the Italian national carrier be as sexy and appealing as the country's reputation.

Travel Tips

New Boston and Chicago passes offer discounts

Passes for discounts of up to 35 percent off major attractions in Boston and Chicago become available today from Smart Destinations. These Explorer Passes are a spin-off of their popular Go Cards. Here's how the passes work: You buy the business-card sized smartcards in advance online, selecting the tours, museums, and other attractions you want to see (with unlimited admission per person). You then either pick up the card when you arrive in your city, or have the card be mailed to you in advance. The Boston Explorer Pass Valid for 30 days (compared with nine days for, say, the typical City Pass) You're given two lists of attractions, and you can pick one item from the first list of "premier" attractions and two items from the list of "signature" attractions. Overall, there are 27 attractions to pick from, including the Beantown Trolley Tour; Mass Bay Lines Whale Watch; the Freedom Trail Foundation Walking Tour; Paul Revere's House, Boston Harbor Cruise’s 45-Minute Constitution Cruise; and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Museum of Fine Arts; Bay State Cruise Company/Provincetown Ferry; Liberty Fleet Tall Ship Adventures; and Plymouth Plantation & Mayflower II (which are a drive outside of the city). If bought online, the passes will be mailed to a home or office, but not area hotels, for a fee. Or you can avoid the fee by picking your passes up in-person at the Mass Bay Lines ticket desk, 60 Rowes Wharf, next to the Boston Harbor Hotel. The price is ordinarily about $45, but there's a sale from now until Aug. 7. for tickets for adults and children 13 years and older for $39.59 each. (Younger children qualify for a deeper discount.) Details at explorerpass.com/Boston. The Chicago Explorer Pass Same deal as above. Possible attractions you can choose to add to your pass (up to three)include: two-day Hop-On, Hop-Off Trolley Pass; Shoreline Sightseeing Architectural River Cruise, Adler Planetarium, and the Field Museum. (Full list of 24 attractions, here.) Pricing starts at $44.99 for adults, but there's a sale of 12 percent off now through July 31. Smart Destinations already offers Explorer Passes for Las Vegas and New York. [explorerpass.com]

Travel Tips

Gear: First checkpoint-ready laptop bag to hit stores in October

Hate having to take out your laptop for TSA inspection? We do, too. As we anticipated, manufacturers are racing to sell laptop bags that can meet TSA standards and allow screeners to catch a clear scan of the laptop without needing to remove it from a bag. Targus, manufacturer of laptop computer cases and other travel products, has previewed its Zip-ThruTM 15.4” Corporate Traveler Laptop Case, the first announced checkpoint-friendly laptop case. The bag will be divided with the laptop on one side in a cushioned pouch and your other belongings in the other half. This morning, the Detroit Free Press described how the bag works: Open it up, lay it on the conveyor belt and let it pass through. Pick it up at the other end, secure it shut and you're on your way. The bag will be black (surprise!) and made of an impressive-sounding "durable ballistic 1680 denier nylon." It measures about 17 inches by 6.5 inches by 14 inches, and weighs less than pounds. It will sell for around $99 when it goes on sale in October. EARLIER Gear: Laptop bags that will pass the TSA test

Travel Tips

Ads on boarding passes: Are airlines sharing your info?

There's been some commotion in the blogosphere about airlines selling advertising space on the boarding passes that passengers print at home. You may not mind seeing ads on your boarding pass, such as one with a coupon for a restaurant at your destination. But should you worry that your privacy is being invaded? Are the airlines sharing demographic information (such as your gender, city of residence, and past flight history) to generate the ads? We called Sojern, the company that's selling the ad space, Delta the first airline to unveil the ads, and five other airlines who have contracts with Sojem, including American, Continental, Northwest, United, and US Airways. All confirmed that they do not share passengers' personal information. "We are not getting any information from the airline other than where they're going and when they're going to be there," said Sojern spokeswoman Susan Booth. Eventually, Sojern plans to offer an "opt-in" service, allowing travelers to customize their boarding passes based on the interests that they voluntarily provide, said Booth. For example, if you love Chinese food, you may someday be able to let Sojern know, and then it will offer you boarding passes that print out restaurant coupons relevant to your trip destination. But for those who aren't interested in the ads, or who want to save their color ink for printing vacation photos, all boarding passes have the option to "print without offers," said Booth. Would you print a boarding pass with ads? Send us your comments.

ADVERTISEMENT