Potential impacts and developmentsSeveral EU countries have recently introduced targeted Covid-19 testing of foreign travellers arriving at their borders. The form is currently required in most EU countries. Greece was the first country to use dynamic machine-learning algorithms to create a real-time dashboard to organise its diagnostic testing system at its borders. This is done through an AI system called EVA, which uses real-time data and optimisation techniques to perform risk predictions and allocate testing resources within the framework of Greece’s current Covid-19 screening capacity. Given the limited laboratory testing capacity of several airports, the lack of available large-scale testing kits and of health providers who could administer the tests and validate the results within a limited time-frame, this smart processing of PLFs may facilitate efficient resource management. The screening system can also supplement traditional contact-tracing procedures, as the data contained in the form can help authorities trace the contacts of all travellers, should a fellow passenger be confirmed as having tested positive for Covid-19. At the same time, the processing of the data contained in PLFs raises several issues about their compliance with the relevant data protection standards and whether and how informed consent requirements can be met given that it is mandatory to complete this form when travelling to certain countries. In addition to the challenges associated with the management of huge quantities of travellers’ data, the efficiency of the PLF system may be undermined by incorrect phone numbers and other false or inaccurate information provided by travellers. How can travellers who provide inaccurate contact details be traced? Furthermore, the performance of targeted testing on the basis of data collected and processed using algorithmic models that are still under development carries the risk of errors. This could, for instance, pose the risk of public identification or stigmatisation of confirmed or suspected individuals. Finally, the usefulness of the system’s deployment from a public health perspective will depend not only on its actual technical effectiveness but also on whether its use can be combined with efficient diagnostic tests, other contact-tracing tools and comprehensive monitoring schemes.
Anticipatory policy-makingPublic health authorities should collect and process the personal data from the PLFs for targeted testing in accordance with Regulation 2016/679, and the privacy framework and recommendation on health data governance of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has issued Considerations relating to passenger locator data, entry and exit screening and health declarations and proposes collecting a minimum data set, the rest of the data to be obtained during the contact-tracing interview. As United Nations experts have stressed, ’emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory’. The proportionate use of location data should consider the medical relevance of the data collected and safeguard its effective anonymisation and storage limitation, so as to prevent accidental disclosure of names of possibly infected persons. Given the transnational nature of this public health emergency, as passengers travel across Europe, the data contained in PLFs and the results of testing and contact-tracing efforts could be collected in a common European database. Τhe Joint European roadmap towards lifting Covid-19 containment measures recognises that coordinated action between Member States should include actions to gather harmonised data, harmonise protocols, and share reference standards. The Commission’s recommendation on a common Union toolbox for the use of technology and data to combat the Covid-19 crisis strongly advocates the development of a common methodology on monitoring and sharing assessments of the effectiveness of contact-tracing applications. The European Commission recently announced that it is preparing, in collaboration with EASA and the EU Healthy Gateways joint action, to launch a common EU digital PLF as one of a number of measures to facilitate safe travel in the post-Covid-19 era, to be available by the end of 202010 January 2021. EU-wide initiatives may enhance the overall efficacy of the PLF system as an EU screening tool and minimise possible overlaps and inconsistencies. However, the gradual deployment of this tool in European airports should be treated with caution given the limited scientific knowledge and technical experience in relation to the effectiveness, thoroughness and credibility of algorithmic decision-making systems of this kind. Τhere are questions about the type and quality of data used for the development and operation of the algorithms, and the rigour of the testing and operational protocols used for their design and deployment. Thus, there is an immediate need for algorithmic impact assessments to improve the quality, explainability and transparency of these screening procedures. As decisions about who should get tested in an airport are important from both public health and privacy perspectives, contact-tracing and targeted testing based on PLFs should be subject to thorough validation and accountability requirements so as to gain public trust and acceptance. Last but not least, the deployment of this screening system should remain part of a wider public health emergency response that needs to consider the essential nature of air travel in the context of Covid-19 and be constantly monitored by public health and data protection authorities alike given the novelty of the technology being used.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘What if AI-powered passenger locator forms could help stop the spread of Covid-19?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.