As the Federal Government Works on “Vaccine Passports,” Privacy Questions Linger

Some promising initiatives, some worrying criticisms

New York's Excelsior Pass
New York State's Excelsior Pass is one example of a "vaccine passport."
New York State

As more and more of the nation gets vaccinated for COVID-19, new questions have begun to emerge: what is and is not safe once you’re vaccinated? What role will COVID-19 tests play moving forward? And at what point will life resume some semblance of a pre-pandemic “normal” — including indoor events and an end to social distancing and masking?

One stopgap solution that’s been gaining popularity is the idea of a “vaccine passport,” which would allow people who have been vaccinated or who have tested negative for COVID to have a unique code that could be checked before entering a music venue or sporting event.

A new article by Dan Diamond, Lena H. Sun and Isaac Stanley-Becker at The Washington Post explores how the White House is attempting to manage a host of vaccine passport initiatives. Jeffrey Zients, the White House Coronavirus Coordinator, stated the goals for such a program earlier this month: “Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy.”

The challenges are numerous. A smartphone-centric plan makes sense on some levels, but could be harmful for people who don’t have a smartphone or easy access to a computer. Concerns over counterfeiting documents are also very real.

One of the programs alluded to in the Post article is New York State’s Excelsior Pass, developed in conjunction with IBM. A recent article in Gothamist notes that some large venues within the state, including Madison Square Garden, have embraced this technology. But Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project raised a number of concerns about how Excelsior Pass handles data.

“I have more detailed technical documentation about the privacy impact of nearly every app on my phone than I do for this health pass,” he told Gothamist.

Can governments and tech companies come up with a vaccine passport that works equally well for all people, that doesn’t raise privacy concerns and that will help curb the spread of the pandemic? Apparently we’re going to find out.

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