Oscar Maung-Haley, 24, was working a part-time job in a bar in Manchester, England, when his phone pinged. It was the UK’s NHS Test and Trace app letting him know he’d potentially been exposed to covid-19 and needed to self-isolate. The news immediately caused problems. “It was a mad dash around the venue to show my manager and say I had to go,” he says.
In many different formats and under many different names, digital health pass systems to prove a person’s COVID-19 status are being developed around the world. They can show how many vaccination doses the holder has received and when, whether they have a recent negative PCR test or have recovered from the illness.
In the spring of 2020, the first versions of covid-19 exposure notification systems were released to the public. These systems promised to slow the disease’s spread by providing automated warnings to people who came into contact with the virus. Now, over a year later, residents in over 50 countries—including half of US states—can opt into these systems.
With all American adults now eligible for Covid-19 vaccines and businesses and international borders reopening, a fierce debate has kicked off across the United States over whether a digital health certificate (often and somewhat misleadingly called a “vaccine passport”) should be required to prove immunization status.
Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH) announced a new collaborative network, the Global COVID Certificate Network, to facilitate the safe and free movement of individuals globally during the COVID pandemic. The new collaboration will establish a global trust registry network that enables interoperable and trustworthy exchanges of COVID certificates among countries for safe reopening and provide related technology and guidance for implementation. The effort is supported by industry leaders such as IBM who have implemented COVID certificate or pass systems for governments and industries.
Almost exactly a year ago, software developers rushed to build technologies that could help stop the pandemic. Back then, the focus was on apps that could track whether you’d been near someone with covid. Today the discussion is about digital vaccine credentials, often called “vaccine passports,” designed to work on your smartphone and show that you’ve been inoculated.
You’ve likely heard that companies are now developing vaccine passports—also called immunity passports or vaccine certificates—to verify a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status, latest test result, or antibody test result. So you may soon be asked to scan a QR code on your smartphone to attend sporting events or concerts, cross borders, fly commercial airlines, and even enter a restaurant or your office building.
As covid vaccines roll out in a handful of countries, the next question has become: How do people prove they’ve been inoculated? For months, this conversation—and the ethical questions any “vaccine passport” system would raise—has been theoretical, but over the last few weeks, efforts have become more concrete. Australian airline Qantas started running a trial in March, while New York launched the first state-level system in the US last week. And on April 5, the UK said it would conduct a pilot as part of its gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. The moves have prompted various reactions: some states in the US have endorsed the concpt; others have banned it.
The Biden administration said this week that it won’t build a national vaccination app, leaving it to the private sector to create mobile digital passports that can prove people have been vaccinated for Covid-19.
New York recently launched a vaccine passport called the “Excelsior Pass.” Brian Behlendorf, general manager of Blockchain Healthcare and Identity at the Linux Foundation of Public Health, talks about what it is, and how people in the open source community are advocating for systems like these to be linked, so people don’t need multiple apps. Then, Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York–based civil rights and privacy group, and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at NYU School of Law shares concerns about privacy and the digital divide.