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OPINION: Are vaccine passports a risk to society?

by Imogen Parker | Ada Lovelace Institute
Friday, 9 April 2021 10:55 GMT

A man walks inside a Terminal at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy near Paris as France closed borders to travellers outside European Union due to restrictions against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, February 5, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vaccine passports are here, and they could be our ticket to freedom. But they could also create an ethical nightmare

Imogen Parker is associate director of policy at the Ada Lovelace Institute

In a matter of weeks COVID-status certificates, or ‘vaccine passports’, which allow people to more easily show their COVID-19 status, have moved from a fringe issue to the centre of polarised political debates. In the UK, the announcement this week of COVID-status certificate pilots has triggered outcry, from the public, parliamentarians and publicans.

In the U.S., the White House has ruled out a federal system that ‘requires Americans to carry a credential’ on the grounds they infringe on privacy and human rights. Meanwhile, Walmart and New York State, forge ahead with their own rollouts

Why are countries giving serious consideration to these divisive technological solutions?

The case for vaccine passports is they will help to restore partial freedoms, and support economic recovery and social participation before herd immunity is achieved by creating an individual approach to risk.

Coronavirus vaccine passports: What you need to know

Those against using vaccine passports for travel include the World Health Organisation who, this week, cited lingering uncertainty over whether inoculation prevents transmission of the virus.

When it comes to the potential upsides, every country will face a different score sheet, calculated on local contexts of vaccine rollout, hesitancy, access to technology and comfort with identity systems and state monitoring.

But while the opportunities are contextual, many of the risks are universal. Any country or company looking to roll out vaccine passport schemes that are effective, trusted and socially beneficial will need to overcome significant challenges while managing operational overheads and navigating the serious issues posed to society.

The first is technical. With some models bringing together identity information, biometric information (face-scanning for example) with health records, the technology must incorporate the highest-level of security to mitigate risks inherent in bringing sensitive information together. To protect against digital discrimination - wherein those without access to the internet miss out - governments will also need to create a non-digital (paper) alternative that doesn’t open the whole system to fraud.

That’s a tall order, but the real challenge will come in managing use. Governments will need to offer clarity within an array of legal frameworks about the circumstances where it is permitted to request or require an individual to prove their health status.

Even areas that seem less controversial – discretionary and higher-risk settings like football matches, clubs or visiting care homes – will need to be scrutinised against equalities and human rights frameworks, data protection regulation and employment legislation: spaces like bars aren’t ‘discretionary’ if you work there.

The use of passports could disadvantage certain individuals by blocking routes to employment or through raising insurance premiums and pose risks to society by marginalising groups unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.

The justification for building an infrastructure for ‘gatekeeping’ members of the public (employers, publicans, box office staff) to determine other people’s rights and liberties based on their health status, would have been unimaginable pre-pandemic.

One of the biggest risks this poses to all societies is how the infrastructure might be developed or repurposed in the future to sort or stigmatise individuals based on status.

Extraordinary conditions might require extraordinary measures, but introducing them as a tool to secure partial freedoms from pandemic containment will need clear sunset clauses and timelines to dismantle the infrastructure post-crisis.

The last challenge countries face will be winning the public’s trust to ensure vaccine passports’ use is seen as legitimate. There are some people in all societies who may have legitimate concerns about harms arising from this technology – those who face oversurveillance by police, with insecure citizenship or employment status, or those unable to have the vaccine.

As some apps under consideration conflate two publicly contentious systems – COVID-status certificates and facial recognition technology – this may compound public concerns about discrimination, and have implications for civil liberties.  

Against these challenges, governments must question whether vaccine passports will deliver what advocates hope for. They will need to evaluate how taking an individualistic approach to managing risk interacts with collective health measures – domestically and globally – from mass vaccination to wearing facemasks. Finally, they must calculate whether the societal risks and operational overheads are justified, or whether it will prove a technological distraction from the only effective goal to reopen society safely and equitably: global vaccination.