Digital vaccination passports are here

Privacy news
4 mins
will privacy be another casualty in digital vaccination passports

This post was originally published on March 4, 2021.

With vaccinations against Covid-19 rapidly gaining momentum, we’re approaching a time when restrictions on travel and movement are likely to be eased. But with some scientists skeptical that we’ll ever see the back of the virus, it’s likely that governments will start to distinguish between people who have been vaccinated versus those who have not.

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Israel provides an early indication of what this might look like. The country has vaccinated approximately 50% of its population already and the government is preparing to issue “green passports” for those who receive their second shot. This vaccination document will give residents access to gyms, hotels, swimming pools, concerts, and places of worship. Restaurants and bars are expected to be included from early March.

The country’s health minister said the passport will be available through a mobile app and that businesses will be required to scan it on entry.

After its domestic rollout, there are plans to use the vaccination document for international travel, too. Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed an agreement allowing citizens with vaccination certificates to travel freely between the three countries, without any self-isolation requirements.

Sweden and Denmark have also announced plans to issue digital vaccination certificates for travel and in-person attendance at concerts and sporting events. Other countries actively considering vaccination passports include Chile, Germany, Italy, Britain and the U.S. Global travel regulator IATA is working on launching the IATA Travel Pass, a digital platform for passengers that allows them to share their vaccination results with airlines prior to checking in.

It’s not just a question of getting vaccinated and being done with it. Our ability to return back to normal life seems to be dependent on sharing medical records and ensuring compliance with a plethora of ever-changing rules.

Some of us were O.K. with a temporary reduction of our privacy in exchange for measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. But the message was clear: This cannot be permanent and must respect individual rights. Whether that actually happens now—or ever again—is anyone’s guess.

Ethical concerns remain

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the bulk of populations in advanced economies will be vaccinated against Covid-19 by mid-2022. The timeline stretches out to early 2023 for middle-income countries and as far as 2024 for poor ones. This stratification underscores the divide between vaccine access; rich countries like the U.S., Canada, and some EU member states have procured multiple doses for each resident.

Poorer nations, however, will have to wait and depend on donor largesse to inoculate their populations. And if digital vaccination passports become a requirement to return to normal life, we’re looking at a stark divide in freedom of movement between the rich and the poor.

Big Tech has entered the race to develop a vaccination passport, too. The Commons Project is working on an app called the CommonPass, which certifies whether an individual meets travel and vaccination rules. Companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, Cerner, and Cigna are part of the project, which seeks to pull medical records from a variety of sources and store them on your phone.

The rush to develop digital passports means records pertaining to individual medical, work, travel, and biometric data are stored on multiple databases and shared freely among authorities under the pretext of public health. This information is intricately tied back to our identities; after all the passports have to certify whether we’re immunized against the virus or not. And the more that this data spreads, the higher the chance of misuse.

“Even if individuals consent to have their health data collected, stored and processed for the purposes of using a digital health passport, providers would still need to build data protection into the design of these technologies by default,” Ana Beduschi, a professor of law at the University of Exeter, told Euronews.

She’s also the co-author of a report that examines the privacy and human-rights implications of digital health passports. The study says that deployment of these digital documents “may interfere with an array of fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, the freedoms of movement and peaceful assembly,” and that policy-makers need to strike a balance between “safeguarding individual rights and public health interests.”

Vaccination passport apps must be designed with privacy, security, and transparency front and centre. The Covid-19 Credentials Initiative, which seeks to develop open-source software with privacy-driven guidelines, is a step in that direction. The initiative is spearheaded by the Linux Foundation and brings together 300 technologists, academics, and healthcare professionals from around the world. One of its core objectives is to develop code that could eventually lead to trusted digital vaccine passports.

In our rush to return to pre-pandemic life, it’s easy to overlook the finer details. Who are the companies handling our data? Can we trust Big Tech with such sensitive information? What privacy guarantees do we have?

As responsible citizens, it is our right and responsibility to ask these questions.

What do you think of digital vaccination passports? Let us know in the comments!

Read more: Biometric data collection around the world

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.