Ever since Israel became the first country to implement a domestic vaccine certification system last month, concerns have grown that similar systems will be replicated worldwide. The certification system being used in Israel clears those who have been vaccinated as safe to use certain facilities like gyms and restaurants or enable them to go to public events. China too has launched a virus passport, where a QR code-based digital health certificate shows a user’s vaccination status and recent Covid test results. It will “promote world economic recovery and facilitate cross-border travel,” a China Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week. Chinese citizens download the app via the WeChat social media platform, similar to the digital tracking systems already established in China. There, a “social credit system” grades citizens on social and public behavior—such as whether they support or criticize the Chinese government. Their scores then adjudicate whether they receive certain privileges or face restrictions.
Several countries, private organizations, technology firms along with the World Health Organization (WHO) have lauded the usefulness of a certification system, especially a digital one that will contribute to revitalizing the travel industry post-pandemic. They envision that when you fly into a country, you will scan an app at border control. If it validates you as having had a vaccine or negative test result, you will not need to go through the country’s quarantine process. If you don’t have a pass, you will likely need to quarantine for up to 14 days at your expense. Still, uncertainties surround the long-term effect of vaccines, and there are many questions raised about privacy concerns with these kinds of systems.
Vaccine passports are not a new concept. Before the pandemic, “Yellow Cards” were used by travelers going from African countries to the United States and other countries as proof of vaccination against yellow fever that travelers are required to show. The passports proposed or in use for Covid-19 are similar digital documents.
Different formats have been proposed. For example, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has created an app called “IATA Travel Pass,” a shared platform that allows airlines and airports to check for the proof of vaccination and its validity for travelers. Etihad Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Air New Zealand, Copa Airlines, RwandAir, and Singapore Airlines (SIA) are part of the IATA trial of the app taking place this month.
Other versions include an app called “Common Pass,” introduced by the non-profit Commons Project based in New York and Geneva, Switzerland. It resulted from a collaboration between The Commons Project, The World Economic Forum (WEF), and 350 other public and private partners, including United, JetBlue, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Swiss International, and Virgin Atlantic Airlines, who signed up to take part in trials last December.
The Common Pass works by letting people access lab results and vaccination records from their national health data systems or registries, then share that info with the platform that will validate their Covid status. The Common Pass platform will assess whether lab test results or vaccination records come from a trusted source and whether they satisfy the health screening requirements of the country they want to enter. All while keeping any Personally Identifiable Information (PII) private. So far testing has occurred on some flights out of New York, London, and Hong Kong with JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic. As well as United and Cathay Pacific flights to New York, London, and Singapore.
The IATA app works much the same way, verifying data by an authorized party and cross-checking to ensure a government’s travel requirements are applied to all travelers entering or leaving that country. Currently, it is only available on iOS devices, and IATA’s Timatic registry is providing verification support. Singapore Airlines (SIA), who began trialing the IATA app on Monday, March 15, said passengers “will be able to view their test results, as well as confirmation status to fly, directly on the app.” They will then “show their confirmed status in the app to the check-in staff in Changi Airport (Singapore Airport) before flight departure.” Qantas airline started its first customer trial of Common Pass too.
Even though the World Health Organization (WHO) has spoken of the need to encourage economies back to a healthier state, presently, it is against requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travel being introduced. According to the WHO, the limited availability of vaccines means that preferentially vaccinating travelers could mean there are not enough vaccine supplies for non-traveling people considered at high risk for Covid-19. There is also much to still learn about the efficacy of vaccination in reducing spread. If vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, it could be almost as easily spread by people who travel by car. There are also issues to tackle dealing with different variants of the virus, whether this will need multiple vaccines, whether this would complicate the passports.
Other privacy concerns relate to oversharing people’s private information. For example, Israel’s “green pass” also shares non-pertinent information such as the date a user recovered from Covid or got a vaccine. Outdated encryption features or centralized databases may also be vulnerable to security breaches. A decentralized blockchain technology, as in the IATA app, would eliminate a central database vulnerable to hacks, though.
A further concern is that government authorities will be able to track people based on the places or touchpoints where the “passport” has been used. Similar worries had been raised in regard to earlier contact-tracing apps in New York, the UK, Australia, and India. For example, the Indian Aarogya Setu app was criticized for its lax security, vulnerability to hacking or infiltration from third parties, and use of personally identifiable information to locate users. While critics lament that Vaccine Passes or passports are not new, the digitalization of such a pass is.
Iceland, Poland, Portugal, and Cyprus have already announced plans for proof-of-vaccination certificates. Officials in Thailand have backed a proposal for vaccine certificates seen as a necessity in the highly tourism-dependent country to fully reopen. The European Union launched a “digital green pass” on Wednesday, which will combine information on vaccination, recovery from the illness, and results from a test for people who aren’t yet fully vaccinated to facilitate safe movement across borders.
Today we strengthen the @EU_commission's response to #COVID19 with:
• Digital Green Certificates for free and safe movement in the EU
• A common path to a gradual, safe and lasting re-openinghttps://t.co/opAMGkeSNf
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) March 17, 2021
For the many Americans who value privacy or don’t have trust in the government, the U.S. is far behind other countries on this issue. There are companies, like IBM, and the PathCheck Foundation, developing vaccine certificates for apps, but no official requirements so far. An official speaking for the CDC said the agency “has not yet issued guidance on management of vaccinated people during travel, and there are no established international standards for vaccines or documentation of vaccination.”