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Vaccine passports could prove to be a minefield for regulators’ privacy

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Singapore Airlines crew members and travelers at the transit hall of Changi Airport in Singapore on January 14, 2021.

Roslan Rahman | UKTN | Getty Images

When the EU announced its plans for a “digital green certificate” this month, the tourism industry heaved a sigh of relief that maybe summer could be saved.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the concept of “vaccine passport” has been regularly mentioned. Once inoculated against Covid-19, a person could carry proof of vaccination that would allow them to travel or access services that would otherwise be locked out.

The EU certificate, which avoids using the term ‘passport’, would create a common digital system for Europe, probably in the form of a smartphone app, to prove vaccination, a negative test or that they recovered from the virus.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said a common EU-wide approach to such a certificate would “gradually restore free movement” in the region.

“It is also a chance to influence global standards and to lead by example based on our European values ​​like data protection,” he said earlier this month.

Different industries around the world have been tinkering with these passes for months.

IBM is working with New York State on a digital health pass that uses blockchain technology to verify a person’s credentials for a test or vaccine and Walmart, which does injections at its stores, has recently supported calls for vaccine certificates.

Apple and Google have previously worked together to create standards for contact tracing in smartphones. The EU has suggested that the tech giants could collaborate again in these efforts with the World Health Organization, but the WHO has since denied this.

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Now that vaccine deployments accelerate, the prospect of these digital passports or certificates has caught the attention of many different industries.

Data confidentiality

The aviation and tourism industries – both brutalized in the past year – have been most eager to pursue this technology to reopen global travel.

The International Air Transport Association introduced its “travel pass” late last year and launched a trial with Singapore Airlines this month.

Originally created to show proof of a negative test, the app will also be extended to show proof of vaccination, according to Katherine Kaczynska, deputy director of corporate communications at IATA.

Kaczynska added that IATA is not in favor of taxing travel vaccines, but rather the industry group sees the app as a way to help open up international travel.

Ultimately, the system will be integrated into an airline’s own app, but there needs to be cohesion in how the various vaccine passport proposals are initiated and managed, Kaczynska told UKTN.

Vaccine passports electronically store displayed medical information as a QR code.

da-kuk | E + | Getty Images

“We work closely with governments because we have to make sure things are interoperable,” she said.

“It’s the governments that need to develop a standard for digital vaccine certificates, and then we need to make sure it works with the IATA Travel Pass and other applications. Ours is specifically focused on aviation, but for this to work there will obviously have to be interoperability between different standards. ”

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Given the sensitive health-related data at stake, the launch of any digital service raises questions about privacy and data protection.

IATA is working with Evernym, a blockchain company that has worked on various decentralized digital identity projects, including a project with the Red Cross.

“The bottom line with the IATA Travel Pass is that it is a decentralized technology, which basically means that all data is by no means stored in a central database. All data is stored on the passenger phone, “Kaczynska said.

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According to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, the proposed system will only require “essential information”. This includes vaccine or test data and a unique identifier for the certificate.


Nicole Hassoun, a professor at Binghamton University specializing in public health ethics, said deploying any type of large-scale vaccination passport requires careful consideration.

As vaccines are distributed in a patchwork of demographic data, passports or certificates should consider exemptions to avoid discrimination for people who have not yet been vaccinated or have health reasons for not being vaccinated, a t she declared.

“Maybe you would allow some sort of passport system, but there must be exceptions in health. There must be exceptions for welfare for people who have really good reasons why they need it. to access these services (like travel), “Hassoun told UKTN.

This is partly why the EU proposal does not focus only on vaccination and includes negative tests.

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Of particular concern is that vaccines are still very new. While data from countries like Israel is promising, more data is needed to verify how effective different vaccines are in reducing transmission and what long-term immunity will look like, Hassoun added.

“We need more data on the effects on transmission for people who have been vaccinated or who might have natural immunity, how long will this last? What happens when there are new strains ? ” she says.

“We need to pay attention to what the private sector is doing as well as what governments are doing and make sure we regulate where necessary and make sure they are fair to everyone.”

She warned that the provision of passports and certificates must be fair, as currently the deployment of the vaccines themselves is not. As Western countries like the UK and US move forward, others are being left behind, like Brazil, which has suffered from some of the world’s worst epidemics and is struggling with its deployment.

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For the EU, which faces its own supply issues due to disputes with AstraZeneca, time is running out for the digital green certificate to be ready for the summer season.

The framework will need quick reading and adoption by the European Parliament and the Council if Europe and its tourism sector are to avoid a second wasted summer.


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