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DHS mulling plan to collect phone numbers from all arriving air travelers for COVID-19 tracing

One civil liberties group said such a program “raises serious concerns about privacy and misuse.”
Image: Travelers head to their gates at Los Angeles International airport
Travelers head to their gates at the Los Angeles International Airport on Aug. 12, 2020.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

Federal health and homeland security officials are considering a contact tracing program that would require all incoming air travelers to the United States — including American citizens — to hand over phone numbers and email addresses regardless of whether they have contracted COVID-19, according to government and airline officials.

The policy under consideration by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security is intended to allow airlines to alert travelers who may have come in contact with an infected passenger, but two sources with knowledge of the program say the information could be accessed by law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and potentially used to track the arriving air travelers.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said such a program would be too broad to have a public health impact and “raises serious concerns about privacy and misuse.”

“The public health logic seems strained to say the least, because it’s not clear why information already provided on flight manifests and on booking and check-in isn’t enough. DHS and CBP should not be collecting data without clear limits and safeguards to protect travelers’ rights,” she said.

Spokespersons for the Department of Homeland Security and the CDC did not respond to requests for comment.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. official defended the program, telling NBC News the CDC can alert fellow passengers through the airline to potential exposure and urge them to quarantine. But while some airlines have alerted passengers, there have been concerns about consistency across carriers, the official said.

Airlines have been preparing for the contact tracing initiative to roll out, according to a senior executive at a major airline that flies internationally.

Currently, passengers arriving on international flights are asked to disclose their name, nationality, date of birth, passport number and the street address where they will be staying.

The program under consideration would require arriving air travelers to provide addresses, email addresses and primary and secondary phone numbers, according to government and airline officials.

In the United Kingdom, for example, travelers are not required to provide a secondary phone number, but are instructed to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, according to a government website.

The contact tracing effort under development is similar to the requirements the U.S. imposed on travelers from China that the CDC and the Department of Homeland Security rolled out in late February.

The Department of Homeland Security has recently been criticized for collecting information on and targeting American citizens, including journalists covering immigration and protests.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency could also use the information to crack down on foreigners who overstay their visas.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the former principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said while contact tracing is a good thing, given the current number of cases in the U.S., threats from airline travel might be higher domestically.

“There are parts of the United States with 100 times the number of cases as other parts of the world,” he said. “So if you are worried about someone coming into the U.S. from Oslo, you should be more worried about someone coming in from Houston.”

In May, international flight arrivals into the U.S. had plummeted by 97 percent compared with the level in January, according to a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association.