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Vaccine Passports Pose Privacy and Discrimination Concerns Says Health Experts and Digital Privacy Advocates



Key Takeaways

  • There are three vaccine passports (or digital health passports) in the works from IBM, CommonPass, and the International Air Transportation Association (IATA).
  • Vaccine passports are seen as the key to reopening state economies.
  • Many health experts and human rights advocates are raising concerns that digital credentialing presents an ethical issue.

Approximately 14 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Many experts estimate that to reach the threshold for ‘herd immunity’, 60-70 percent of the population would need to gain immunity through past exposure or vaccinations.

After almost a year since the United States went into quarantine, wearing masks, social-distancing, and nasal swabs, there seems to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. As more of the U.S. population is eligible to receive vaccinations, there have been broader discussions on how to safely reopen the economy to include group events, lessen restrictions on traveling and tourism.  

However, to ensure individuals are safe to gather in groups after being vaccinated, many airlines, concert halls, and other public places are leaning towards requiring proof of immunity. A vaccine passport is an electronic record showing that an individual had either been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19.

The variety of passports under development are either digital records or an app on your smartphone. There are three vaccine passports (or digital health passports) in the works from IBM, CommonPass, and the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), which are all similar.

What State Governors Are Saying

Vaccine passports are seen as the key to reopening state economies. Many state governors are open to the concept of vaccine passports but are looking to the CDC for guidance on the value of implementation in their states. 

On CNBC’s Squawk Box, when asked about vaccine passports, NJ Governor Phil Murphy replied: “And in terms of what value that card will have, other than your own personal health, (is) to be determined. But that is under consideration, and there are lots of different potential uses for that, whether it’s going to a sporting event, getting on a plane, etc. So hold onto it and, again, we will first and foremost take our guidance from the CDC.”

Nevertheless, vaccine passports are being heavily politicized. The Republican Governors Associated slammed the New Jersey governor on Twitter, raising that requiring vaccine passports could open the door to a “health privacy minefield.” 

Not surprisingly, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an anti-lockdown Republican, has said his state won’t be “doing any vaccine passports,” calling the existence of such documents as “unacceptable.” 

Privacy and Information Security Concerns

The electronic nature of the proposed vaccine passports is without controversy among human rights activists and data protection advocates. 

The first issue relates to privacy. The digital nature of the proposed vaccine passports increases the risk of “data breaches” when storing private health information in such a format. According to the leading digital privacy organization, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argues:

“[R]equiring people to store their medical test results in a digital format would expose private medical information to the danger of data breaches. Again, this is hardly new—we have seen exactly these types of breaches in the past when medical information has been digitized and collected.”

For example, in 2019, an HIV database in Singapore containing private information was leaked on more than 14,000 individuals who were HIV positive. In the United States, there have been significant data breaches making headlines involving Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Google’s Gmail, and Equifax. Past data breaches pose substantial challenges in gaining the public’s trust that their private health information is secure. 

So far, there have been no proposed solutions to ensure private health information stored digitally on the vaccine passports is secured from potential future data breaches. 

Discriminates Against Disadvantaged Populations

Many health experts and human rights advocates are raising concerns that digital credentialing presents an ethical issue. Their problem is digital health passports could “discriminate against disadvantaged populations.” As we plan on reopening our economy, we do not want to overlook inequality of access when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, testing, and smartphone technology. 

The EFF argues that using smartphone-based vaccine passports to access public places would risk creating “a two-tiered system that bars people who can’t work, shop or attend school because they don’t have a cell phone or access to testing.”

According to Pew Research, 81% of Americans own smartphones. Parsing out demographic usage, 53% of those 65 and older do not own a smartphone. Among ethnic groups, 79% of Hispanics do not own a smartphone, and whites and blacks have near equal ownership of smartphones (82% and 80%, respectively). By contrast, the most significant disparity is among rural (71%) and suburban (83%) populations. 

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The lack of widespread ownership of smartphone technology is an issue policymaker and commercial enterprises need to consider when implementing digital vaccine passports. It would be both unethical and unfair to restrict access to public places due to a lack of smartphone technology access to prove immunity. 

Lamenting the concerns with vaccine passports, Dr. Nita Farahany, who is a Duke University professor and a leading scholar on ethical, legal, and social implications of emerging technologies, points out, trust in healthcare and health institutions is “very low right now” by minority populations, and “vaccine passports could further erode trust.” 

Why this Matters

Vaccine passports are supposedly intended to help combat the spread of COVID-19. However, there is little evidence that they would accomplish this. The inequality of access and privacy concerns when it comes to storing health information digitally should concern policymakers and the private sector. 

The private sector has the right to implement vaccine passports as a requirement of access to ensure public safety. However, they would be inadvertently discriminating against disadvantaged populations who do not have access to smartphone technology and overlooking the privacy concerns expressed by leading advocates. 

Now that vaccines are becoming widely available to the general public, there is growing pressure to reopen the economy, but this does not outweigh ethical and privacy concerns of implementing vaccine passports. 

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