Freedom to Travel or Gateway to Health Surveillance? The privacy and data concerns of COVID-19 vaccination passports

Freedom to Travel or Gateway to Health Surveillance?
The privacy and data concerns of COVID-19 vaccination passports
By Matthew Hui | February 19, 2021

Borders closed and quarantine and testing requirements abound, travel may hardly be top of mind as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. As the vaccine roll out continues in the United states, a “vaccine passport” is among the many ways to facilitate the reopening of travel and potentially giving a boost to a hospitality industry that has been disproportionately battered by COVID-19’s spread. Denmark is already in the process of rolling out such digital passports to its citizens, while Hawaii is currently developing its own to allow travelers to skip quarantine upon proof of vaccination. Both the travel industry and governments whose economies rely on it have strong incentives for a wide and quick roll out of these passports. Although they may provide increased freedom of movement and travel during a pandemic, the rollout of these digital records must address serious ethical and privacy concerns associated with their implementation and usage in order to improve the chances of success.

How would vaccine passports work?

Vaccination passports essentially act as digital documentation that provide proof of vaccination to COVID-19. A person would be able to access this documentation on a smartphone to show as proof. These are currently in development by both government and industry, such as the IATA Travel pass and IBM’s Digital Health Pass. These would also support proof of other activity such as virus testing results, or temperature checks.

Meeting the minimum requirement of having a smartphone and internet access to utilize a vaccine passport will need to be considered to address access. One method to address this is through the usage of a NFC-enabled card.

Privacy and Trust

As a credentialing mechanism, a digital vaccine passport system must inherently have methods of storing, sharing, and verifying sensitive health data. Digital vaccine passports will also need to be designed to prevent fraud and disclosure breaches. In both cases, failure to do so will undermine public trust necessary for widespread adoption. Fraudulent health records and insecurity could easily undermine adoption by organizations using these systems for verification. Disclosure of private or sensitive information could hamper uptake by individuals or prevent continued use due to an unwillingness to share personal health information.

As entry into countries and access to transportation may be conditioned on having a vaccine passport, we will need to consider what personal and health information is required to obtain a vaccine passport and ensure that it is commensurate with the scope of its use. Potential misuse of this information that goes outside of the containment of COVID-19 by governments must be considered in the design of a vaccine passport.

Beyond COVID-19 and Travel

While usage of vaccine passports have primarily been discussed in the context of travel, the proliferation of these passes could widen its scope to other aspects of life beyond crossing borders and create concerns around access and equity. It would not be difficult to imagine vaccine passports being used as a condition to access stadiums, museums, nightclubs, in addition to trains or airplanes. These entities may start to require different levels of access to health information, perhaps not only requiring vaccination records, but lab results or thermal scans. In the context of a pandemic, these requirements may seem reasonable. Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, if you were required to show proof of a flu vaccine to enter a stadium during flu season this could easily have felt intrusive.

In these expanded use cases of the vaccine passport, society must consider which aspects of the public sphere should or should not be conditioned on having a vaccine passport, and how much health information should be shared to gain that access. Should access to employment to jobs that interact with the public be subject to these conditions? With unequal access to the vaccine and healthcare more generally, will inability to obtain vaccination be a mitigating factor when subject to these conditions? Governments will need to have a framework in place that defines the scope of usage for these vaccine passports and what that entails for their continued usage outside the context of a pandemic. This will be important to prevent the encroachment of requiring personal health data by organizations to access the public sphere and minimize discrimination and harm.