As the last few years have demonstrated, the loudest voices in the room have a tendency to drown out the more reasoned ones. When it comes to the growing controversy surrounding vaccine passports, that often ill-informed or conspiratorial bluster has the potential to foster a serious global health problem.
There are real concerns being raised by actual subject matter experts around vaccine passports — ones of equity, privacy, and segregation — but those warnings are at risk of being drowned out.
With vaccination rates on the upswing and a post-pandemic future appearing possible, now is the time to ensure the world waiting at the other end of this collective nightmare is one guided by those experts — and not whoever can simply make the most noise.
It’s all in the details
As the pandemic raged throughout 2020 and continues on in 2021, corporations, governments, and schools have foisted various forms of heath and surveillance tech on the population. This assorted technology — BioButtons, mandatory contact-tracing apps, motion-tracking cameras — has been, in many cases, fundamentally flawed and deeply problematic, rightly eliciting pushback.
Vaccine passports are the latest addition to this concerning menagerie of pandemic tech. But with extreme polemicists comparing vaccine passports to the yellow stars Jewish people were forced to wear during the Holocaust, it’s important that valid concerns not be overshadowed by deranged hyperbole.
With that in mind, it’s worth defining what a vaccine passport is.
Essentially, a vaccine passport is some sort of document — likely digital — which verifies that an individual has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. It could take the form of an app, QR code, or another verifiable document, and could be organized by private businesses or a government. Denmark’s “Coronapas” is an example of government and business working together.
In a world where the coronavirus becomes a permanent fixture, such a document possesses an obvious surface-level appeal. Imagine being able to hit the dance floor at a concert, flirt with a stranger on a cruise, or share a beer with friends at a game, knowing everyone in attendance has been vaccinated.
Less immediately obvious, perhaps, are its drawbacks.
Greg Nojeim, director of the Security & Surveillance Project of the Center for Democracy & Technology, made clear over email the darker side to requiring proof of vaccination in order to go about everyday life.
“A significant portion of the population will refuse or be unable to get vaccinated,” wrote Nojeim. “Will the unvaccinated be excluded from planes, trains, cruises, restaurants, ballparks, gymnasiums, beauty salons, hotels, casinos, bars, and other places of public accommodation? For how long?”
It’s not just how they will be used, but how vaccine passports will be implemented that has experts worried. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, argued that the specifics matter.
“We don’t oppose in principle the idea of requiring proof of vaccination in certain contexts,” Stanley explained in an emailed statement. “But the devil is in the details, and any proposal for ‘vaccine passports’ must not be exclusively digital, must be decentralized and open source, and must not allow for tracking or the creation of new databases with personal medical information.”
The ACLU is not alone in its caution. In December of 2020, as the U.S. rejoiced at early shots going into the arms of essential workers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a “nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world,” laid out its concerns regarding any future vaccine passports:
“We must make sure that, in our scramble to reopen the economy, we do not overlook inequity of access to the vaccine; how personal health data in newly minted digital systems operate as gatekeepers to workplaces, schools, and other spaces; and the potential that today’s vaccine passport will act as a catalyst toward tomorrow’s system of national digital identity that can be used to systematically collect and store our personal information.”
Lost in the noise
The criticism levied against forthcoming vaccine passports is not always so level-headed.
As highlighted by the Virality Project, a self-described “coalition of research entities” aiming to “detect, analyze, and respond to incidents of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation across online ecosystems,” some concern over vaccine passports is being used to push various anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
“Critics have argued that vaccine passports are a central part of the ‘Great Reset’ [conspiracy theory] plan and will be used as a tool to not only require more vaccinations in the future but to also advance other ‘globalist’ agendas such as social credit and access to social and governmental services,” warns the Virality Project in a recent post on its site.
Some Republican members of Congress have likewise taken a less than considered approach in their criticism. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado called vaccine passports “unconstitutional,” and Fox Business recently reported that Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina said they “smack of 1940s Nazi Germany.”
In a March 29 press conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went so far as to promise some sort of “executive function” to block vaccine passports in his state.
“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” Business Insider quoted him as saying.
An uneven start
In the face of both thoughtful critique and conspiracy-theory alarm, those advocating vaccine passports have their work cut out for them. If the launch of New York state’s Excelsior Pass is any indication, there’s a lot of work left to do.
The digital pass, which would, at least in theory, allow people to prove their vaccination or testing status, drew immediate criticism for the potential of enabling “digitized segregation.”
The technical implementation of the passport, which a press release from the New York State governor’s office makes clear relies on “blockchain technology,” was also criticized as being ill-suited for the required task.
As The Intercept reported, blockchain technology — which, at its core, involves an immutable, decentralized database — makes little sense for this specific application, suggesting the entire thing is a buzzy attempt at capitalizing on the perceived cache of anything “blockchain.”
“Blockchain solves a very specific problem around not trusting people, and the problem with this vaccine stuff is you do trust people,” Matthew Green, an associate professor of cryptography at Johns Hopkins University, told The Intercept. “[You] have to trust the data being entered into the blockchain is an actual trusted reflection of who’s vaccinated or not.”
Unfortunately, this misplaced focus on an ill-fitting technological solution doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which, as the name suggests, is an airline trade association, claimed in January that its planned travel pass initiative also relied on blockchain tech.
“It’s so powerful and it’s probably one of the first-ever examples of blockchain technology being implemented in a way that benefits people,” said Alan Murray Hayden, the head of the airport, passenger, and security products for IATA.
It’s precisely these kinds of under-explained or poorly understood technological solutions that Nojeim warns we should be wary of, as they don’t properly and clearly address privacy concerns.
“Some of the digital credentials being developed will, with user permission, access sensitive health data, such as whether a person was vaccinated or the results of COVID-19 testing,” he wrote. “That information may be available to the entity that developed the credential. HIPAA may not cover that entity, leaving such data potentially unprotected, or protected only by the terms of service that nobody reads.”
So what entities are we talking about? Notably, as CBS News reported, the Biden administration doesn’t currently plan to launch a government-run vaccine passport program.
“[Unlike] other parts of the world, the government here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of — of citizens,” CBS News quoted Andy Slavitt, the acting director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as saying during a March 29 briefing. “We view this as something that the private sector is doing and will do.”
Warning versus distraction
Whatever form vaccine passports take in the coming months, the private and governmental bodies pushing them forward must do so with caution.
In February, Liberty, the UK’s largest independent civil liberties organization, said that when it comes to vaccine passports, even the best intentions could go terribly awry.
“Even the introduction of a voluntary passport to prove if you’ve had a vaccine could result in many being blocked from essential public services, work, or housing,” wrote the organization. “Meanwhile once these passports have been created for one purpose – like travel – it would be all too easy for their use to be extended and abused.”
This sentiment was echoed by Nojeim, who warned of a slippery slope.
“It’s one thing to require evidence of vaccination to travel to another country, but quite another if you need one in order to access a public space,” he wrote. “Will they [be] passports to travel, or ‘passports to life?'”
As we move forward into the pandemic-stained future, we would do well to heed the warnings of those speaking with clarity about complex issues — and beware of those who seek to distract us with dangerous anti-vaccine conspiracies.