Virgin and Easyjet open to legal challenge?

On 29 April the Home Office announced that two UK airlines, Virgin and Easyjet, are to take part in a three months pilot scheme to carry out on behalf of law enforcement and security agencies "pre-entry screening" of all passengers boarding in Madrid (Easyjet) and Miami (Virgin) and flying to Stansted and Heathrow respectively. Checks will also be made on passengers leaving the UK on "selected flights" run by the airlines.

The Home Office says that "cutting edge technology" will be used by the airlines to "read" passengers passports and check out their names and details "instantly" against "law enforcement databases" - which can be assumed to be the UK "watch list", plus police, customs, immigration, security and intelligence databases. The checks will also check passports for security features, tampering and fraudulent documents - though how the different EU identity cards or local resident permits are to be checked is unclear.

The scheme, which the UK hopes to introduce for all flights in the near future, is said to be to tackle terrorism, organised crime and "potential immigration and security risks".

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"The contract between passengers and airlines is to provide a flight, not for airline staff to play a law enforcement surveillance role. It is legitimate for immigration officials to check whether a passport is valid/forged because passengers supplied their details in order to travel. However, it is not legitimate for airlines to use the information supplied by passengers - their name and passport details - for another purpose - to check them out against security and intelligence databases - this is precluded by the EC Data Protection Directive. Some of the same objections to the US demands to check out passengers flying from the EU against their "watch lists" apply to this idea too.

Will passengers be asked to consent to their names being checked out? And if they do not consent will the airline refuse to fly them? If this is the case then the concept of consent is rendered meaningless. Will passengers refused boarding on the basis of security intelligence have the right of complaint and legal recourse?

The airlines should think again about their participation, partly because the idea has little to do with terrorism and the safety of passengers and more with introducing the wholesale surveillance of all passenger movements and, partly because they could find themselves in trouble with the law if challenged"

This pilot scheme is a precursor to the UK government's intention to introduce "smart passports" (a paper passport and a passport card) carrying biometric details such as fingerprints and iris scans by April 2005.

Home Office press release


Reference: 123/2003 - Date: 29 Apr 2003 10:23

"Cutting-edge technology is to be used to run instant checks on airline passengers to identify potential immigration and security risks before they travel to the UK, the Home Office announced today.

A new pilot will use high tech document scanners to "read" the passports and other documents of UK-bound passengers boarding at Madrid and Miami, and instantly check them against online law enforcement databases. Checks will also be made on passengers travelling on selected flights leaving the UK. The pre-entry screening system will identify anyone who is a known immigration or security risk, as well as helping to detect forged or stolen documents.

The trial is a key part of the Government's strategy to modernise immigration controls to meet the challenges of the 21st century by using the latest technology and developing the use of biometrics.

The three month "pre-entry screening" trial will operate in partnership with Virgin Atlantic between Heathrow and Miami and easyJet between Stansted and Madrid.

Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes said:

"This trial is the first step in a long-term programme to harness the latest technology to modernise and strengthen our border controls, creating a border security system fit for the 21st century.

"Ninety million people passed through the UK last year; reflecting the UK's leading place in the global economy. Against this background, it is neither possible, nor desirable to set up a fortress Britain.

"But we do need to ensure that we have in place measures to protect the security of our citizens and strengthen our borders to prevent people travelling to the UK illegally and to tackle terrorism and organised crime.

"In the future we will increasingly look to develop the use of biometrics and obtain more passenger information before people travel to the UK. In doing so, it is vital that we work in partnership with industry and I am grateful for the support of Virgin Atlantic and easyJet in this trial.

"It builds on the success of the screening technology we are deploying along the north European coastline, which has effectively moved our immigration controls abroad and significantly reduced the numbers of illegal entrants reaching the UK by these routes."

Virgin CEO Richard Branson said:

"We are delighted to confirm that Virgin Atlantic is the long-haul carrier participating in this important trial. Virgin Atlantic is always keen to become involved with any innovative new products or technologies that may be able to enhance customer service and security. The safety and security of our passengers and crew is of paramount importance."

Ray Webster, easyJet Chief Executive, said:

"The safety and security of our passengers, staff and aircraft is of the highest priority to easyJet and we have always been at the vanguard of airlines seeking ways of making air travel ever safer. For this reason, we are delighted to be involved in the Home Office trial."

The passport scanners will check instantly travel document information against law enforcement and immigration databases in the UK. The system also
checks passports for security features and tampering, providing an additional safeguard against the use of fraudulent documents. This is intended to complement existing passport and immigration checks and will not limit the liability of airlines to ensure that passengers have adequate documentation.

The Government's strategy for modernising border controls, using technology and biometrics, was set out as part of its radical overhaul of immigration, asylum and citizenship in the White Paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven. Increased use of technology and biometrics will enable certain types of passenger to be processed quickly, while allowing the Immigration Service to focus efforts on the areas that pose most risk."

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