The U.S. is distributing more vaccines and the population is gradually becoming vaccinated. Returning to regular means of activity and movement has become the main focus for many Americans who want to travel or see family.
An increasingly common proposal to get there is digital proof-of-vaccination, sometimes called “Vaccine Passports.” On the surface, this may seem like a reasonable solution. But to “return to normal,” we also have to consider that inequity and problems with access are a part of that normal. Also, these proposals require a new infrastructure and culture of doorkeepers to public places regularly requiring visitors to display a token as a condition of entry. This would be a giant step towards pervasive tracking of our day-to-day movements. And these systems would create new ways for corporations to monetize our data and for thieves to steal our data.
That’s why EFF opposes new systems of digital proof-of-vaccination as a condition of going about our day-to-day lives. They’re not “vaccine passports” that will speed our way back to normal. They’re “vaccine bouncers” that will unnecessarily scrutinize us at doorways and unfairly turn many of us away.
What Are Vaccine Bouncers?
So-called “vaccine passports” are digital credentials proposed to be convenient, digital, and accessible ways to store and present your medical data. In this case, it shows you have been vaccinated. These are not actual passports for international travel, nor are they directly related to systems we have in place to prove you have been vaccinated. Though different proposals vary, these are all new ways of displaying medical data in a way that is not typical for our society as a whole.
These schemes require the creation of a vast new electronic gatekeeping system. People will need to download a token to their phone, or in some cases may print that token and carry it with them. Public places will need to acquire devices that can read these tokens. To enter public places, people will need to display their token to a doorkeeper. Many people will be bounced away at the door, because they are not vaccinated, or they left their phone at home, or the system is malfunctioning. This new infrastructure and culture will be difficult to dismantle when we reach herd immunity.
We already have vaccination documents we need to obtain for international travel to certain countries. But even the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), the entity that issues Yellow Cards to determine if one has had a Yellow Fever vaccine, has come out against vaccine passports.
Requiring people to present their medical data to go to the grocery store, access public services, and other vital activities calls into question who will be ultimately barred from coming in. A large number of people not only in the U.S., but worldwide, do not have access to any COVID vaccines. Many others do not have access to mobile phones, or even to the printers required to create the paper QR code that is sometimes suggested as the supposed work-around.
Also, many solutions will be built by private companies offering smartphone applications. Meaning, they will give rise to new databases of information not protected by any privacy law and transmitted on a daily basis far more frequently than submitting a one-time paper proof-of-vaccination to a school. Since we have no adequate federal data privacy law, we are relying on the pinky-promises of private companies to keep our data private and secure.
We’ve already seen mission creep with digital bouncer systems. Years ago, some bars deployed devices that scanned patrons’ identification as a condition of entry. The rationale was to quickly ascertain, and then forget, a narrow fact about patrons: whether they are old enough to buy alcohol, and thus enter the premises. Then these devices started to also collect information from patrons, which bars share with each other. Thus, we are not comforted when we hear people today say: “don’t worry, digital vaccine bouncers will only check whether a person was vaccinated, and will not also collect information about them.” Once the infrastructure is built, it requires just a few lines of code to turn digital bouncers into digital panopticons.
Temporary Measures with Long Term Consequences
When we get to an approximation of normal, what is the plan for vaccine passports? Most proposals are not clear on this point. What will become of that medical data? Will there be a push for making this a permanent part of life?
As with any massive new technological system, it will take significant time and great effort to make the system work. We’ve already seen how easy it is to evade New York’s new vaccine bouncer system, and how other digital COVID systems, due to their flaws, fail to advance public health. Even with the best efforts, by the time the bugs are worked out of a new digital vaccine system for COVID, it may not be helpful to combat the pandemic. There’s no need to rush into building a system that will only provide value to the companies that profit by building it.
Instead, our scarce resources should go to getting more people vaccinated. We are all in this together, so we should be opening up avenues of access for everyone to a better future in this pandemic. We should not be creating more issues, concerns, and barriers with experimental technology that needs to be worked out during one of the most devastating modern global crises of our time.