With all American adults now eligible for Covid-19 vaccines and with businesses and international borders reopening, a heated debate has begun in the United States over whether a digital health certificate (often and somewhat misleadingly called a “vaccine passport”) will be required should to prove vaccination status.
Currently, Americans are being issued a white paper card as evidence of their Covid-19 shots, which can be easily forged, and online scammers are already selling fake and stolen vaccination cards.
While the federal government has announced that it will not introduce federal mandate digital vaccination records, a growing number of companies – from cruise ships to sports venues – are saying that they need proof of vaccination for entry or services. Hundreds of digital health passport initiatives are struggling to bring apps to market that provide a verified electronic record of vaccinations and negative coronavirus test results to streamline the process.
The initiative has raised privacy and equity concerns, and some states like Florida and Texas have banned companies from requiring vaccination certificates. However, the developers argue that the digital infrastructure is secure and will help expedite the process of reopening society and revitalizing travel.
Governments, tech companies, airlines and other companies are testing different versions of the digital health passports and trying to develop common standards so that each system is compatible and health records can be created in a secure and controlled format.
The process is associated with major technical challenges, especially due to the large number of ongoing app initiatives. For the certificates to be useful, countries, airlines and companies must agree on common standards and the infrastructure they use must be compatible. In the United States, getting individual states to share vaccination data with different certificate platforms while preserving the privacy of residents is also complicated.
Here’s what we know about the current state of digital health passports and some of the obstacles they face in the United States.
Can I get a vaccination certificate?
In March, New York became the first state in the United States to introduce a digital health certificate called the Excelsior Pass, which checks a person’s negative coronavirus test result and whether they are fully vaccinated.
The app and website, which have now been downloaded more than a million times, are free and voluntary for all New Yorkers, and offer a QR code that can be scanned or printed out to check a person’s health records. The pass has been used by thousands of New Yorkers to enter Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and other smaller public venues.
Most companies require individuals to present their government ID along with their Excelsior passport to prevent possible fraud.
In Israel, where more than half of the population is fully vaccinated, residents are required to show an electronic “Green Pass” to visit places such as gyms, concerts, wedding halls and dine indoors.
The European Union has approved an electronic vaccination certificate, due to be recognized from July 1, that a number of European countries have already used, but each individual member country can set its own rules for travel requirements. The UK has also started testing a Covid-19 certificate system designed to help companies reopen safely.
Some airlines, including Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and Jet Blue, have started using the Common Pass digital health app to check passengers’ Covid-19 test results before boarding. The International Air Transport Association’s Health Pass is used by more than 20 airlines and allows passengers to upload health certificates required for international travel.
Are they legal
That depends on the state regulations. The Biden government has announced that there will be no federal immunization system or mandate. Individual states have primary public health powers in the United States and have the power to request vaccines.
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“We assume that a vaccine pass, or whatever you want to call it, is being driven by the private sector,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing in March. “There will be no centralized, universal federal vaccination database and no federal mandate that prescribes a single vaccination card for everyone.”
In April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning government agencies, private companies, and institutions receiving state funding from requiring individuals to prove they had been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a similar order, saying that demonstrating vaccination would “limit individual freedom” and “harm patient privacy” as well as “create two classes of citizens based on vaccinations.”
But these orders cannot be held liable. “The governors are on uncertain legal ground,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “Of course, lawmakers have the power to regulate businesses in the state, and they can stop counties and local governments from issuing vaccine passports. But a governor who acts alone has no inherent power to regulate businesses except through emergency or other health powers given to them by law. “
Where should the information come from?
There is no centralized federal vaccine database in the United States. Instead, states collect this information. All states except New Hampshire have their own vaccination registers, and some cities, like New York, have their own.
Currently, states are required to share their registers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the data is not public and could be withheld.
That means anyone developing a digital vaccination certificate in the United States will need to obtain vaccination records from individual states, which could be problematic in states that oppose health passport initiatives.
Why are people against it?
One of the problems is the terminology. A passport is issued by a government and certifies personal information, including an individual’s legal name and date of birth. Many people fear that they are giving out personal and sensitive health information to private companies that could be stolen or used for other purposes.
“There are many legitimate concerns about how privacy and technology would work with these systems, especially since Silicon Valley doesn’t have a great history in providing privacy enhancing technology,” said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Linux Foundation Public Health. an open source, technology oriented organization.
“And the concept of privacy here is complicated because, ultimately, you are trying to prove to someone that you received something,” he said. “You don’t keep a secret, so the challenge is to come up with something and prove it without forever creating a traceability chain that could be used.”
The Linux Foundation works with a network of technology companies called the Covid-19 Credentials Initiative to develop a set of privacy standards when using vaccine certificates. The main goal of the initiative is to create a verifiable ID (similar to a card in a wallet) that contains a range of information about a person, but is digitally native and cryptographically secure.
Some argue that such an ID would encroach on personal freedoms and private health decisions.
“‘Vaccine passports’ must stop,” former Texas representative Ron Paul wrote in a tweet last week. “To accept them is to accept the misconception that the government owns your life, your body and your freedom.”
Others fear that an all-digital system would leave some communities behind, especially those with no access to smartphones or the internet.
“All solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” said Jeff Zients, the coronavirus coordinator of the White House, in a statement.
The World Health Organization said in April that it does not yet support the need for vaccination certificates for travel due to uncertainty about whether vaccination will prevent transmission of the virus and equity concerns. But the organization is working with a number of agencies such as UNICEF, ITU and the European Commission to set the standards and specifications for a possible globally recognized digital vaccination card.
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