There is growing support for vaccine passports as a way to facilitate reopening in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns. Some states, such as New York, have already rolled out a vaccine passport. Other states such as Hawaii and Illinois have indicated that they will be developing their own versions.
Other states have made it very clear they will not be issuing vaccine passports. Arizona, Montana, Idaho, and Texas have enacted bans against government agencies either requiring them or issuing them. Florida has gone even farther and banned vaccine passports for either public or private use.
While there are many practical factors for each state to take into consideration, there is also a more fundamental point to consider. More states should follow Florida’s lead because vaccine passports—especially when issued by government—are a violation of the right to privacy.
New York State was the first state to roll out a vaccine passport. The passport, called Excelsior Pass, is an app downloaded on smartphones that presents proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at a venue that demands it. The businesses and venues can use the app or they can demand another proof of vaccination such as the paper card that is issued when the vaccine is given.
The Excelsior Pass has already encountered major problems, including startlingly lax security protocols. It is far too easy for a determined person to steal a vaccine pass from a vaccinated person.
Another element of the Excelsior Pass’s security flaw is that it enables essentially anyone to access your private health records. It requires the person with the passport to make that private health information available on demand in order to enter participating businesses or venues. This can expose private information to the discretion of random employees, besides requiring a far greater trust of businesses than people normally undertake. Even the extremity of COVID does not justify the violation of healthcare privacy that vaccine passports allow.
Another major problem with the vaccine passport is that it discriminates against the poor. Excelsior Pass, for example, is only available for the latest versions of Android or iOS. For anyone who has to make an older smartphone last, it is impossible to use Excelsior Pass or any other similar vaccine passport. Although many people have complained about both the lack of adaptability and the security flaws, it remains unclear whether any improvements will result.
A case can be made for private sector vaccine passports, since they are arguably less coercive than government-issued passorts. Some advocates of nongovernmental passports argue that the state should not interfere with them precisely because they are, well, nongovernmental. For instance, some airlines are beginning to suggest that they will require proof of vaccination in order to fly to certain destinations. The most prominent airline to suggest proof of vaccinations is United Airlines. United plans to begin flying to Iceland, Greece, and Croatia this summer and all three tourist destinations will require proof of vaccinations.
The problem with the private sector vaccine passports is that they will be state-encouraged. Take for example what is going on in California. The state has not issued vaccine passports, yet. But the state is encouraging their use in private venues.
While California continues to have stricter reopening standards than most of the country, it has provided incentives for venues and companies to open up with more capacity. According to the state’s guidelines, a live indoor venue can open with more capacity once it has a standard for verifying whether or not customers have been vaccinated. In other words, California is incentivizing the use of vaccine passports. Indeed, UC San Diego is working with a group called the Vaccination Credential Initiative to create vaccine records in digital and paper form.
Vaccine passports are a threat to privacy, and intrude the state into people’s private healthcare decisions. A truly private vaccine passport is impossible because the state will either play a role in creating them or will encourage them to be used.
Moreover, vaccine passports discriminate against those who cannot get the vaccine due to health conditions or various demographic considerations. For example, most major vaccines are not yet approved by the FDA for children under the age of 17, even for emergency use..
Finally, vaccine passports will delay a much-needed return to normality. There is no guarantee that airlines and venues will continue to demand such passports for long after COVID-19 has become just another manageable disease. But how many people’s privacy could be endangered before that happens?
Getting vaccinated is a good idea. But, for many reasons, vaccine passports are not.