Digital identity and vaccine passports

vaccine passports

Hailed as an effective way to get industries like travel and events moving again, vaccine passports have received a great deal of interest from national governments and travellers looking to go abroad, as well as apprehension by some on privacy grounds.

The concept behind a vaccine passport is simple. Through either a physical pass or digital certificate, citizens will be able to prove they have been fully vaccinated, possess a recent negative COVID test or have recently recovered from COVID. Airlines and other hospitality providers, including hotels and bars, will then be able to scan a QR to verify their vaccination status.

While the UK government has reportedly dismissed the idea of vaccine passports for domestic purposes, plans for vaccine passports for international travel are still being considered.

The EU’s Digital Covid Certificate, a version of a vaccine passport, is now being introduced across the 27 member nations of the EU. But the Chinese government were the first to roll out a COVID vaccine passport in March 2021, which is restricted to Chinese citizens and is hoped to boost travel in the country.

A spokeswoman for the World Health Organization has said the organisation does not back vaccination passports as they are uncertain of the extent to which inoculation prevents virus transmission, as well as noting concerns around discrimination against people who, for certain reasons, have not been able to have a vaccine.

Privacy advocates, such as the Open Rights Group and Big Brother Watch, argue that vaccination passports have the potential to invade personal privacy and may be discriminatory against non-vaccinated people in countries who are yet to expand their vaccination programme. These groups also voice concerns over the security of potential vaccination passports, with a lack of public trust in such solutions reducing their uptake.

The Israeli Green Pass vaccination passport suffered from usability issues since it was launched. Despite efforts to built trust that the app is secure and not being used for purposes besides vaccination proof, local officials have access to personal identifiable information and the security used to safeguard data in the app is outdated.

Issues like this are driving some public opposition to vaccine passports, especially as a number of high-profile social media accounts continue to highlight #NHSDataGrab, which refers to plans for the NHS to share medical records from all GP patients with third parties. As many security and privacy issues like this have still not been addressed, vaccine passports may face an uphill battle in adoption, if introduced.

Yet, there are clear benefits to introducing a Covid vaccination tracking system that makes it easier to travel. Global tourism levels hit record lows during the peak of COVID infections and remain far lower than before the pandemic hit. Introducing vaccine passports would enable travel to rapidly increase between countries that accept the certification and in the process allow leisure travellers to spent their money at restaurants, hotels and airlines that have suffered massive financial setbacks over the past 14 months.

Annet Steenbergen, Chair of the IATA Passenger Facilitation working group, explains that the pandemic is not receding yet, with many countries actually facing new outbreaks. “We have to facilitate life back to some form of normal,” Steenbergen says, “and testing and vaccinating are the means to achieve this and fight the pandemic. This means health credentials need to be presented by the holder and verified in order to safely do things like work, visit a concert or travel.

However, Steenbergen is also a data privacy advocate and believes health credentials must, and can, respect data privacy and data protection, by, “sharing only the bare minimum data, self-sovereign and from a trusted, preferably government, source.

So perhaps if implemented in the right way, vaccine passports could be key to getting travel and entertainment industries back up and running, whilst still protecting user privacy. “Maybe we should not refer to these digital solutions as ‘health passport’,” Steenbergen says, “but a digital health cards or certificates, and not only refer to vaccination but also test results to approach this topic in an inclusive manner.

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Written by Finbarr Toesland, Editorial Contributor