This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a Future Tense series.
Flying seems like just about the most dangerous thing you could possibly do right now. You’re spending hours confined in a metal tube, with hundreds of strangers from all over the world, without any way of knowing where they’ve been or whom they’ve been with. Under those circumstances, you’d expect a few additional safety requirements. No one wants to get sick—so what’s the loss of a little more privacy, if it keeps you out of harm’s way?
That, at least, is the rationale behind a fleet of new measures either under consideration or already in place at airports around the world. In the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration is reportedly preparing to begin checking passengers’ temperatures before they board. New arrivals to the U.K. must, as of June 8, provide an address where they will self-isolate for 14 days. (Police will follow up with “surprise” in-person checks.) More than 45 countries have rolled out “digital ankle bracelet” tracking apps, which are likely to be either mandatory or strongly encouraged for air travelers. Meanwhile, biometric scanning, to check people against their ID, is being aggressively tested by airports from Munich to Sydney.
Since 9/11, we’ve grown accustomed to compromising on privacy when we fly. It’s a trade-off: No one likes to be X-rayed, patted down, or prodded, but it’s the price we’ve learned to pay for our alleged safety. Few would fight extending those measures to protect us from getting sick—provided they actually do the job. But privacy experts and epidemiologists alike question the utility of some of proposed plans, as well as whose responsibility they are. Is it better to have your data held indefinitely by the government, or by an airline? And if the measures don’t work, what are they there for?
Here’s the thing: Between the hospital-grade air filters and extremely dry air, a plane in flight actually seems to be a fairly inhospitable environment for the virus—at least compared with going out for dinner, attending a cocktail party, or even going to choir practice. There’s some risk, especially in the terminal or during boarding, but it seems comparable to a bus, a train, or any other crowded environment, none of which are likely to have greater security measures.
Take one very recent study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal: On a 15-hour flight between Guangzhou, China, and Toronto, more than 25 people sat within 2 meters (7 feet) of a symptomatic passenger. Not one of them later tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, tracing of 1,100 infected air passengers, who between them came into contact with 100,000 others, “revealed no secondary transmission,” according to a statement from the International Air Transport Association. (Two crew members may have been infected by one of these passengers.)
If the risk is fairly small to begin with, we might expect that any measures taken will actually be effective—especially if our privacy takes a hit in the process. But many of the proposed initiatives actually don’t seem to do the job, raising concerns that they may be little more than health security theater, designed to encourage passengers to return to the skies. “People want that simple solution, to give themselves the peace of mind that it’s all going to be okay,” says Jeff Price, an aviation security expert. “Even though that solution is not doing anything to really solve the problem—it just gives the appearance.”
Take temperature checks. In early May, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists pushed back against Department of Homeland Security requests to introduce widespread thermal scanning in airports. In an email to DHS officials obtained by USA Today, Martin Cetron, the CDC’s director of global migration and quarantine, described the process as “poorly designed” and without “a probability of mission success.”* He concluded, “Please kindly strike out CDC from this role.”
When it comes to COVID-19 detection, health experts say, temperature checks alone simply aren’t sensitive enough to do the job, especially as many infectious passengers exhibit no symptoms. An elevated temperature could be the result of cancer treatment, a urinary tract infection, or other unrelated factors, many of which could be hard to justify to a security agent. (It’s also extremely possible to “trick” these sensors, including taking ibuprofen to lower a fever.)
With the CDC opting out, the U.S. government has reportedly turned to the TSA to perform the job. It’s a problem, says Price: “The TSA’s primary function is security for transportation, not public health. They’re trained to look for items that could damage an aircraft or be used to damage an aircraft or hijack a plane,” he says. “They’re not trained as health experts.”
Travis LeBlanc is one of two Democrats on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency within the U.S. government that weighs citizens’ right to privacy against laws designed to counter terrorism. Since last year, he says, the board has been conducting an oversight investigation into the use of biometrics in aviation security, primarily focused on the use of facial recognition technology. Given their current work, he says, he was shocked to learn from media reports rather than the government itself that the TSA was considering conducting mandatory temperature checks on travelers. “We have an oversight project and no one mentioned that,” he says. “I was surprised as to how TSA could have the legal authority to do this.”
In many respects, it’s a civil rights issue, he says: “We know that surveillance activities typically disproportionately affect people of color.” More than that, he worries that banning people with COVID-19 from flying, whether or not they are infectious, could disproportionately affect people of color, who have been more likely to contract the virus. For regular travel, flying a week or so later might not be a problem—but it becomes trickier to judge when not allowing a passenger to fly could cost them their employment.
LeBlanc would prefer airlines to take responsibility for these or other checks. It makes it easier for airlines to rebook passengers onto different flights, minimizing the likelihood that vulnerable travelers could wind up stranded. Finally, he says, “The airline is not likely to collect the information in a massive government database that is accessed by lots of government agencies and kept in perpetuity.”
While some U.S. airlines such as Frontier have opted to do their own temperature screening, others have been outspoken in their desire for the government to take the reins. In a meeting with President Donald Trump in May, Gary Kelly, the Southwest CEO, pushed for a health screening to become part of the TSA experience. “A temperature check like we had today coming into the White House would be very sensible,” he said, “along with a health declaration.” (When asked about the CDC’s view that temperature checks were not effective, Southwest declined to comment.)
It’s not surprising that airlines would look to offload the cost of making travelers feel safe, says Price. “Airlines traditionally don’t want to take on any responsibility that’s an expense, where there’s no moneymaking portion,” says Price. “But it’s really their responsibility to ensure that nobody that is a safety risk, or security risk, or public health risk, gets on the airplane.”
Other measures are designed to protect essential airport staff from close contact with passengers. Biometric scanning of the sort in place in Australia could allow passengers to move seamlessly through the terminal, without coming within a few feet of anyone else. But there are huge concerns here too, says Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy and technology policy for the nonprofit Consumer Reports. “Biometric information can be misused in so many ways, and can be exported to other contexts,” he says. “I’m disappointed by how quickly it’s being adopted—I don’t think that the incremental convenience justifies the collection of these really sensitive databases.”
While more and more biometric scanning may at this point be unavoidable, passengers have resisted contacting tracing apps. Even in countries where surveillance is the norm, like Singapore, adherence rates are low, with citizens leery of handing over that much information. But with international travel on the verge of opening back up, states with quarantine procedures may opt to require incoming passengers to download one if they wish to enter the country.
In India, for instance, passengers must show officials that they are marked as “safe” on the country’s national contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu (which means “bridge to health” in Sanskrit). While it’s not strictly compulsory, failure to do so could result in additional quarantine requirements as well as having to justify one’s self to airport officials. It’s concerning, says Brookman. “I would not want to see any travel contingent upon sharing your historical and prospective movements with the government,” he said. “I think that’s not justified remotely, under the circumstances.”
As they currently stand, these measures are concerning. But what’s arguably more worrying is that, like many post-9/11 security measures, they may remain in place in perpetuity, or at least long after the initial justification ceases to be relevant. “It’s a reminder of why we don’t like to build these [security] infrastructures, because they become so easy to expand once they’re set up,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “And of why we don’t want infrastructures that are built specifically for COVID detection to outlast the pandemic—because it becomes easy to piggyback all kinds of surveillance and checkpoint functionalities onto them.”
Correction, June 15, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Martin Cetron as the CDC’s director of global mitigation and quarantine. He is the director of global migration and quarantine.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.