Guides & Advice

COVID-19 temperature checks: Data protection in UK airports

Published: 17th August 2020
Area: Corporate & Commercial

COVID-19 temperature checks: Data protection in UK airports

As air travel begins to resume in the UK, airports are relying on safety measures, such as COVID-19 testing, to encourage people to take to the skies once more.

However, it has been questioned whether the benefits that the collection of sensitive data brings truly outweigh the risks.

Biometric technologies

Airports have been using facial, iris and fingerprint recognition technologies to improve passenger experience and security for years. Body temperature testing, on the other hand, is still uncommon, particularly in the UK.

With a raised temperature being a key symptom of COVID-19, it seems a sensible option for airports to record temperature data. Whether checks are taken using a laser thermometer or thermal imaging, the data collected can help to identify those with COVID-19, but it must be handled appropriately.

Temperature checks and privacy laws

Europe has strict privacy laws, which partly explains why health testing hasn’t been carried out routinely in European airports up to now. Biometric and health data are classified as ‘special category’ data under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), meaning they require additional conditions to be met before its processing is lawful. Read more about data protection and GDPR here.

Particular care must also be taken with its storage, handling, use and disposal. Breaches regarding biometric and health data will likely lead to much more severe consequences than if names or emails are mishandled or hacked.

Data protection impact assessments

Before implementing any form of temperature testing, airports must do a data protection impact assessment (DPIA), as required by the GDPR. This involves documenting any potential privacy risks and exploring mitigations that can be introduced to minimise these.

The goal is to demonstrate whether testing is a necessary and proportionate way to meet the set objectives and to review whether there are any alternatives that are less intrusive.

Temperature data could be misleading regarding COVID-19, as the virus is not the only reason someone may have a raised temperature. Furthermore, many COVID-19 carriers show no symptoms such as a raised temperature. As such, airports should assess whether temperature testing is a necessary and proportionate way of identifying passengers with the virus, and a justifiable intrusion into their privacy.

Obtaining consent for temperature checks

If an airport is able to show that collecting temperature data is proportionate and necessary in the legitimate interests of the airport and its passengers, it then needs to face the issue of trying to satisfy one of the additional conditions the GDRP applies to processing health data, such as obtaining the fully informed - and freely given - consent of the individual involved.

Not only will gaining explicit consent from every passenger be logistically challenging, but it also raises questions about whether it is truly freely given if it’s the only way to continue a journey. Passengers must also be able easily to withdraw their consent at any time if they wish, and managing this will not be easy.

Each passenger must know why the data is being taken, how it will be stored, who it will be shared with, and when it will be disposed of. There are approaches that can be taken to tackle this, including reading a script to passengers that contains all the necessary details and displaying clear messaging throughout the airport, but ensuring that every passenger understands and accepts the privacy risks involved is not straightforward.

Will temperature checks become a normal part of air travel?

The fact that taking temperatures in European airports is still quite rare shows that it is not easy to overcome the legal and logistical challenges it presents. Unless national governments make it compulsory, in turn removing many of the difficulties holding airports back, it is unlikely that testing will become a normal part of the passenger experience.

Contact us

If you have any queries relating to the legal implications of conducting temperature checks, or any other data protection or GDPR issue, contact Kim Walker in our commercial team.

Our webinar on temperature checks in the workplace looks at GDPR and what employers need to do before collecting processing and storing special category data, employer and employee rights, and the importance of health and safety and GDPR policies.

From inspirational SHMA Talks to informative webinars, we also have lots of educational and entertaining content for life and business. Visit SHMA® ON DEMAND.

Our free legal helpline offers bespoke guidance on a range of subjects, from employment and general business matters through to director’s responsibilities, insolvency, restructuring, funding and disputes. We also have a team of experts on hand for any queries on family and private matters too. Available from 10am-12pm Monday to Friday, call 0800 689 4064.

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