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International: Vaccine passports and privacy concerns

As almost 400 million people worldwide have been vaccinated against the Coronavirus, the prospect of 'vaccine passports' is becoming an ever-increasing reality in order to get back to normal. Petitions have already been started in the UK to try and stop this almost inevitable reality, but are they really as bad as people are expecting, and to what extent will they be infringing on our privacy? Jamal Ahmed, Global Privacy Consultant at Kazient Privacy Experts, discusses the viability of vaccine passports and the privacy concerns that come with them.

spooh / Signature collection / istockphoto.com

Employers and employees alike are wondering if the return back to the office will be marked by a request for vaccine passports, and many travellers are thinking they may have to pack a vaccine passport as well as their travel passport for any post-Coronavirus overseas trips. In the UK, the government is considering a vaccine passport feature, added to the current NHS app which means individuals would then use their phones to be able to confirm their vaccine status. In addition to meaning more personal information would be stored on a phone, it also means that those who do not have smartphone access could be at a disadvantage.

After a year of lockdowns, those in the UK are considering vaccine passports as the only real way back to normalcy, but many believe they go too far. The petition asking the UK government to not introduce vaccine passports has garnered over 300,000 signatures and will be debated by MPs in the House of Commons. Vaccine passports have already made an appearance on the darknet, with fake vaccination certificates being sold at around $150.

Some holiday and travel agencies have introduced vaccine requirements, hoping to capitalise on the 'grey pound,' the spending power of the over 50s, who will have been amongst the first to be fully vaccinated.

It is not clear as of yet in the UK whether vaccine passports will be needed for international travel only, or whether they will be a necessity to participate in anything deemed 'non-essential.' When we book a table at a restaurant, will we also have to disclose the vaccine status of all members of the party? Will the days of smoking and non-smoking sections of venues be reignited into vaccinated and non-vaccinated sections? Will employers insist that vaccine status is written into a contract, denying employment to those who do not wish to declare their vaccine status? There are still a vast number of questions to be answered, especially in the UK, about what will be involved in the introduction of vaccine passports, questions which the government have yet to answer.

There is concern that a vaccination passport system could continue to grow until it becomes a national ID programme, a national passport scheme which could cause indirect discrimination. As BAME communities, younger people, and certain religious groups may be less likely to get vaccinated, then introducing a passport based on vaccination would be indirectly discriminating on the basis of ethnicity, age, or religion. David Davis, a former cabinet minister and MP, stated that even if the government did not end up introducing vaccine passports, and private companies did, they too would face court cases due on the grounds of discrimination.  

While it may seem trivial to some to share their health data with the pub or a shopping centre in order to enter, the data could be used by government agencies or the police and could be linked to other forms of our data, whether that's our private social media pages, or our public electoral roll information.

This fear has not stopped some organisations already saying that they will be rolled out. The organisers of certain festivals have said that it's likely that attendees will need some sort of proof that they are either Coronavirus-free or that they have been vaccinated. The latter will prove likely difficult for many of the attendees who will fall into the under 50 category, many of whom will not be eligible to be vaccinated by summer 2021.

Across the world, other bodies and countries are debating the use of the vaccine passport. The EU has announced a possible scheme for a 'Green Digital Certificate;' allowing anyone who has tested negative for Coronavirus, or anyone who has been fully vaccinated, or indeed anyone who has recently recovered from the virus, to travel within the EU. They hope it will be introduced before the 2021 summer tourist season. In Israel, which has managed to vaccinate a high percentage of their population, they have introduced a 'green pass.' The 'green pass' is an app which shows whether or not individuals have been vaccinated. It differs from the EU proposition as individuals need the green pass not only to travel abroad but to be able to attend gyms, hotels, theatres, and concerts. The way that the EU is proposing to not discriminate over those who cannot or will not get the vaccine is that the Green Certificate will also allow for the holder to display their negative Coronavirus test results.

While ethical issues still remain over the privacy of a vaccine passport, at present there are no viable alternatives which would see an end to lockdown restrictions; something that many have been waiting for months. Vaccines certainly reduce the risk of catching a severe case of Coronavirus, but they do not prevent transmission. Vaccinated does not equal safe, and this is extremely risky should a vaccine passport be introduced that suggests as such. Furthermore, vaccine passports could set a dangerous precedent in healthcare and restrictions. By allowing those deemed as 'healthy' more rights than those deemed as 'unhealthy,' it could be considered a form of discrimination. Likewise, those who are unable to pay to declare their health status or those who cannot access a vaccine could have their freedoms restricted even more so.

While vaccine passports may indeed be the way of the future, they need much more development before they are introduced. In a world defined by data, we cannot ignore the massive privacy questions raised by this sharing of health data. National ID cards have already been rejected in 2010, and just because we are in a pandemic does not equate to an assault on our privacy through clear discriminatory means.

Jamal Ahmed Global Privacy Consultant
[email protected]
Kazient Privacy Experts, London