Government watchdog: Airport fever screenings for coronavirus raise racial profiling, privacy concerns

Government watchdog: Airport fever screenings for coronavirus raise racial profiling, privacy concerns

A federal plan to screen air travelers for fever to detect the coronavirus is drawing scrutiny from a government watchdog officer worried about risking privacy intrusions and racial discrimination without evidence that such checks will keep Americans safer.

Travis LeBlanc, a board member for an independent federal agency charged with protecting Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, on Monday asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to detail how it intends to collect, use and safeguard the sensitive health information.

LeBlanc sought answers to a dozen questions about the government’s yet-unpublished airport screening plan in a letter released to USA TODAY.

“The ongoing pandemic is not a hall pass to disregard the privacy and civil liberties of the traveling public,” wrote LeBlanc, a Democrat on the five-member bipartisan Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

The agency, created in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack to counter government overstepping in the fight against terrorism, has been investigating the use of body measurement calculations, such as facial recognition and fingerprinting technology, in airport security.

USA TODAY reported last month that scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention objected to a White House plan to check travelers’ temperatures in 20 U.S. airports, noting that earlier CDC-led efforts to screen travelers returning from China had failed to stop the virus from reaching the United States.

In internal emails obtained by USA TODAY, CDC officers highlighted the high percentage of COVID-19 infections in people who never spiked a fever as one reason restarting the screenings would not work.

LeBlanc cited the article in his letter and asked how the Department of Homeland Security has determined that temperature screenings would improve the safety of air travel.

Read:Travis LeBlanc's letter to the Department of Homeland Security

The federal government has not yet released a plan to screen for fevers for domestic travel and its status is unclear. Neither DHS, nor the CDC, responded to requests for additional information.

LeBlanc said he understands the concept has been piloted at Dulles International Airport. He is concerned, however, that he has not seen a required privacy impact assessment.

He also questioned the legal authority of the Transportation Security Administration to execute health screenings without trained medical workers, especially since those workers may face safety risks in performing the checks.

“The program seems designed at TSA to increase the perception that traveling is safe,” LeBlanc said in an interview, “and the risk of that sort of security theater is it creates a false sense of security in people believing that there aren’t COVID-19 infected passengers that are on their flights.”

He called “deeply troubling” the potential for disproportionately barring racial minorities from traveling. African Americans, for example, have been sickened and killed by the new coronavirus at especially high rates.

President Donald Trump has signaled support for some form of health screenings, which airlines hope will convince people it is safe to travel again. Discount carrier Frontier already has started using a touchless thermometer to screen all passengers and crew before they board flights. Anyone with a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher is not allowed to fly.

Wide-ranging privacy concerns are emerging from the coronavirus epidemic. A bipartisan bill introduced this week in the U.S. Senate by Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington state and Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana seeks to protect consumers who are using newly developed apps designed to track their exposure to people with COVID-19.

It also would mandate a review of government practices during the pandemic by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Cantwell previously has called for national guidelines on safety protections for airport travelers and workers.

The American Civil Liberties Union also has expressed concern about using temperature screenings to detect and protect against the COVID-19 virus in a wide range of settings, from workplaces to hospitals, particularly when there is no vaccine.

For starters, people can spike fevers for many reasons unrelated to the new virus, including other illnesses, stress and hormonal changes.

Jay Stanley, an ACLU senior policy analyst, noted that the technology under consideration to conduct mass temperature screenings is not always accurate.

Airplanes present unique challenges, with travelers crammed close together for long periods of time. “Nobody wants to be on an airplane next to somebody who is infectious with COVID,” he said.

But kicking anyone off may be equally fraught, Stanley added, saying, “It is a serious business to deny people their right to travel.”

Letitia Stein and Brett Murphy are reporters on the USA TODAY investigation desk. Contact Letitia at, @LetitiaStein, by phone or Signal at 813-524-0673 and Brett at or @brettMmurphy.


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