Travel Industry Weighs Privacy, Safety in Re-Opening Polices

By Joanne Cleaver 

As travel resumes, what health and itinerary information will be attached to individuals’ documents?  

The travel industry has its gloved hands full as it rethinks and reorganizes its mission, functions, design and operations.

A top priority for a consortium of industry trade groups, led by the U.S. Travel Association, includes new types of identifications and related processes for ticketing, check-ins and payments.

While lodging, air and other core travel sectors are not yet ready to announce exactly what new data will be required of travelers and how that information will be used and protected, a few early indicators are emerging.

Pressure is mounting for screening passenger temperatures at U.S. airports, though the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to assert that it will take its cues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — and is not yet implementing a health-screening program.  

“At this time, no decision has been made regarding specific health-screening measures at airports,” a TSA representative told Digital Privacy News in an emailed statement. “TSA continues to rely on the health expertise of HHS and the CDC.

“Ongoing discussions with our DHS and interagency colleagues, as well as our airport and airline partners, will enable the agency to make informed decisions with regard to the health and safety of the aviation environment,” the representative said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, warned Tuesday against using fever-scanning cameras, infrared temperature-sensing guns and similar devices to screen people for possible COVID symptoms, saying the tools often were ineffective, intrusive and inaccurate.

“There’s a lot of reason to doubt that temperature checks will help stop the spread of COVID-19, and they should not be deployed unless public-health experts say conclusively that they will help,” Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst, said in his report.

“What we don’t want is a world where inaccurate tests disrupt people’s lives — especially those most vulnerable to such disruptions — waste time and other resources that could be better used in fighting the pandemic and invade our privacy.”

“There’s a lot of reason to doubt that temperature checks will help stop the spread of COVID-19, and they should not be deployed unless public-health experts say conclusively that they will help.”

Jay Stanley, ACLU.

Following WHO Guidelines?

Still, hints that the TSA might be a front-line health screener indicates that the U.S. might be aligning with emerging international health-screening practices.

European and Asian countries rapidly are falling in line with the World Health Organization’s guidance for screening traveler health and building profiles of travel history and contacts, said Sergio Merino, co-founder of iVisa, an online platform for streamlining travel documents in Sunny Isle, Fla. 

Most Asian countries, among the first to plot post-COVID-19 policies because they are furthest along the recovery curve, now are requiring health declarations or health certificates, Merino said.

“Countries are issuing two documents, the visa itself, and on top of that, they are making you show the health declaration, which is 10 to 15 questions — and that will produce an electronic certificate,” he told Digital Privacy News.

Currently, the apparent standard is that travelers must confirm their health every time they cross a border, Merino said.

“You have to get it over and over,” he said. “They’re asking if you’ve recently had a fever, symptoms — and every time you go in you have to redo it.”

‘Do Not Board’ Rules

In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has invoked existing authorities and intradepartmental collaborations.

So far, the TSA’s approach is to apply the CDC’s “Do Not Board” (DNB) guidelines and corresponding data about potentially infectious travelers. 

“At the CDC’s request, TSA administers the CDC (DNB) list and places an individual on the list,” the TSA representative told Digital Privacy News. “The DNB list prevents commercial air travel by people who are contagious with COVID-19.

“The individual remains on the list until the CDC requests TSA remove him (or) her,” the representative added. “At the request of the CDC, an individual will remain on this list until their exposure to or infection with COVID-19 no longer poses a public-health threat.”

“They’re asking if you’ve recently had a fever, symptoms — and every time you go in you have to redo it.”

Sergio Merino, iVisa online platform.

E-Document Systems

Preexisting policies now are intersecting with newly introduced travel electronic-document systems.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates a “Mobile Passport Control” program that uses a mobile phone app to speed entry of U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors across the border.

Even pre-COVID-19, the program’s privacy policies included a clause that travelers might not be aware that their biometric information was being collected. 

A CBP spokesperson told Digital Privacy News by email that travelers could enroll in the mobile passport control program without divulging personal health information.

At the same time, though, if a border control staffer “observes a traveler who has symptoms of COVID-19 or who otherwise meets the CDC’s COVID-19 screening guidelines, we will refer the traveler to the CDC, DHS medical contractors or local health officials for enhanced health screening,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the “Opening Up America Again” plan, announced last month by the White House, ties the resumption of some travel services to COVID metrics in states and metropolitan areas, as applied by local authorities.

While CDC guidance applies to federally controlled functions such as border control and TSA, on-the-ground amenities like hotels, dining and road transportation must follow directives by state and local governments. 

Joanne Cleaver is a writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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