Digital COVID Vaccine Passports: Five Key Takeaways

Mozilla

By Mozilla | May 19, 2021 | Mozilla Festival

Do you feel like a vaccine passport is a fast-track to normality, or like a dystopia in the making?

The idea of vaccine passports isn’t new, but emerging technologies are bringing fresh concerns to light. Despite the existence of traditional, paper-based methods (such as Yellow Cards) that have worked for decades, there has been a renewed push for technical solutions that could amplify the exploitative and exclusionary risks of digital identity systems.

So we brought together three experts as part of the virtual Mozfest Dialogues and Debates series: Alice Munyua, Director of Africa Innovation at Mozilla; Dr. Pamod Amarakoon, Director of HISP Sri Lanka; and Imogen Parker, Associate Director of Policy at the Ada Lovelace Institute to talk through the positives and pitfalls of digital COVID-19 vaccine passports. You can watch a video of their discussion here:

Here are some of our key takeaways:

Do they need to be digital?

Accessibility is a core problem with digital vaccine passports. Not everyone owns a smartphone, especially in lower income countries.

And vaccine passports are not a new concept – the world has seen vaccine passports used for smallpox, cholera, and typhoid. They’re still in use in paper form for yellow fever, dating back to the 1930s.

The major difference between the yellow fever vaccine passport and what’s being proposed now is the technology. We’re now looking at having a lot more personal information centralised in one place, like in England’s NHS app, or requiring tech solutions that have never been rolled out on this scale before.

One solution proposed by developers is a “digital twin” – a downloadable paper form of your vaccine passport that is able to speak to digital verification systems.

Covid-19 vaccine passports could further increase societal inequities

Digital identity systems (including vaccine passports) are highly susceptible to ‘scope creep’, where having a unique digital health identifier incentives governments to tie them to other forms of monitoring. And not all of us have equal access to the vaccine. Lower income countries are still waiting on supplies, and there is a risk of a “vaccine apartheid”, where those privileged enough to receive access to the vaccine will be able to live a different life to those without. The question we need to ask ourselves is “is this vaccine passport system going to be empowering, or exclusionary?”

For that reason, discussions about vaccine passports shouldn’t be limited to a national context. This is a global problem, and it needs a global solution. Without international consensus on when and how vaccine passports should be used, we risk further entrenching global divides – and accidentally prolonging the pandemic, and our return to “normal” life.

There is huge inequality in how people can travel and move around the world from different places. COVID-19 vaccine passports risk making that worse and stopping people from seeing loved ones for years to come.

Make sure the right guard rails are in place

When you’re designing, implementing, and operating online systems, you need to make a series of technical and policy decisions to make sure you’re not harming people, particularly vulnerable communities.

Governments need to make sure that any solution is considered within laws and regulations – for example laws on data protection, employment, health and safety, human rights – and then understand how communities will interpret the use of a vaccine passport. Even if it’s not “mandatory”, the requirement to prove vaccination in order to be employed will be interpreted as mandatory.

There is also the question of private companies that are helping to roll out this technology. They’re being exposed to some of our most personal information – are there limits on how they’re able to use that information? There needs to be a discussion on how those companies will profit from the use of a digital vaccine passport.

Scientific evidence and medical research should come above techno-solutionism

It’s critical that we don’t build vaccine passport technology without real scientific grounding. We don’t yet understand COVID-19 immunity well enough to know if a vaccination will provide effective long-term protection, or if it will impact other public health measures.

For example, people may overestimate their safety and not continue to undertake other safety measures. And we don’t yet know if someone could unintentionally bring a mutation back from holiday with them.

Is there an “off” switch?

If COVID-19 vaccine passports are a crisis measure, Governments must define how they’re planning to dismantle the technology to stop its use. Ways this could be done is by making the technology time-limited, specific to a certain set of criteria for use, and define who’s allowed to collect data, and how long they’re allowed to keep it for. It’s some of our most personal information, after all.

A return to ‘normal life’ using COVID-19 digital vaccine passports isn’t a simple decision. If you’d like to learn more about vaccine passports, here are some additional links:

Our next virtual Dialogues and Debates talk is “Big Tech & Germany’s Election” on Tuesday 25th May at 8am PDT / 11am EDT / 5pm CEST / 8:30pm IST, featuring Felix Kartte, Julia Reinhardt, Amber Sinha and moderated by Julie Owono. Click the link to learn more and how to take part.

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