Are non-profit vaccine passports the key to preserving privacy?
Digital vaccine passports that can be managed on a mobile app are a popular choice not just for travel, but increasingly for work and entry to bars, cinemas and other social activities.
But rights experts say they exclude marginalised groups, and raise risks of greater surveillance and loss of privacy.
Amid the rash of big technology companies including IBM, Oracle and Microsoft that are developing digital passports, is a handful of non-profits who say their vaccine passes can preserve privacy and are more inclusive.
“Not every tech solution should be controlled by big tech,” said Jennifer Zhu Scott, executive chairman of The Commons Project, a non-profit that has partnered with the World Economic Forum to develop a mobile app to show vaccine status.
“We can take this global crisis and make data ownership more inclusive if we can provide privacy-preserving solutions for people. Those are the best technologies that we can put into someone’s hands,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Vaccine passports have been around in some form for a while, from certificates for smallpox vaccinations in the 1800s to evidence of shots for diphtheria and whooping cough, and the “yellow card” for proof of inoculation against yellow fever.
These were generally paper certificates stamped by doctors. Vaccine passports for COVID-19 are often mobile apps that contain more personal details of the individual, their vaccination status and vaccine dosage.
The Commons Project’s CommonPass, which is free to download, allows individuals to access their lab result and vaccination record, and requires their consent to have that information validate their COVID-19 status without revealing any other underlying health information at the same time.
Several airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas and Cathay Pacific are using or testing CommonPass. The Commons Project is also talking to dozens of governments, said Scott.
“Perhaps at the end of the pandemic, we can look back and say: we returned some of the data ownership to individuals,” she said.
“Since national and international inequities in access to vaccines are occurring along racial and economic lines, vaccine passports are poised to be a marker of privilege of vaccination, rather than a simple signifier of immunity,” she said.
In addition, vulnerable groups like undocumented people may be unable to use vaccine passports even if they are vaccinated, “for fear of their movements being logged or tracked,” she said.
“The underlying problem presented by vaccine passports - dictating entry into private and public space - remains,” she said.
“Put simply, if we want vaccine passports to be equitable, we must vaccinate equitably.”