Debate over Vaccination Passports Gathers Steam in Europe and United Kingdom

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The concept of a “vaccination passport” was raised in the European Union (EU) early in the pandemic. EU documents show a timetable for discussion of the issue as early as March 2019, with a view to proposing an EU directive on the subject by 2022, but the Internal Market Commissioner announced a prototype this Sunday. In Brexit Britain, the idea of such a passport was brushed aside as recently as February, but the government has now reversed course and ordered a review of its feasibility. The debates across the Atlantic will be instructive for how the United States approaches a federal system of vaccination accreditation.

What the Europeans are talking about is a government-backed or -issued vaccination credential. Most of the current proposals are actually private. For instance, the International Air Transport Association, an association of the world’s leading airlines, is working on a “travel pass” to provide airlines, passengers, and governments with the assurance that tests and vaccinations are accurately recorded, thereby enabling the airlines and passengers to meet the differing requirements of governments around the world in one format.

The World Economic Forum’s CommonPass platform similarly “aims to assess whether the individual’s lab test results or vaccination records (1) come from a trusted source, and (2) satisfy the health screening requirements of the country they want to enter.” The Linux Foundation is working on a COVID-19 Credentials Initiative that aims to provide broader use cases than simply travel.

The European Union, however, has gone ahead with its own prototype document, a “Digital Green Certificate” aimed at facilitating travel between member states in the Schengen area. The digital document will show either/or proof of vaccination, proof of antibodies as a result of having had the disease, or a recent negative test result.

However, some EU member states are using their own versions for internal purposes. In many cases ,these are tied to existing national ID programs. Denmark, for instance, will utilize its ID card-connected vaccination credential to allow citizens to frequent businesses such as hairdressers, restaurants, and movie theaters. Yet, Denmark has a high level of trust in both its government and its fellow citizens. Other countries, with lower levels of trust, such as France and Germany, have resisted such proposals on the grounds of privacy.

There is also the early experience of Israel, a world leader in both vaccination rates and in the introduction of a vaccine pass. There are indications that communities with a low level of trust in the government, such as the Palestinians, regard the pass as deepening existing inequities, and there are suggestions of increasing reluctance to receive vaccinations in those communities. There are also substantial privacy concerns:

The green pass is also a potential privacy nightmare, says Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel. He says the pass reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from covid or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, Orr says. Crucially, because the app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

“This is a catastrophe in the making,” says Ran Bar Zik, a software columnist for the newspaper Haaretz.

The worries about inequities between communities are spurring opposition to vaccine passports in the United Kingdom from civil rights activists there. In December de facto deputy Prime Minister Michael Gove said that Britain had no plans to introduce a vaccine passport and that individual businesses “of course” had a right to decide on whether people should be admitted or not. However, he was recently appointed to head a review of the desirability and feasibility of vaccine passports for domestic use.

Over 300,000 people then signed a petition to Parliament expressing the view that “passports could be used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a COVIDd-19 vaccine, which would be unacceptable.” While Parliament debated the issue, former Brexit minister Steve Baker quoting the 1960s drama The Prisoner to some effect, and many members expressing the view that vaccine passports create a two-tier society, The debate was summarized by minister Penny Mordaunt thusly, “If we are going to do anything in this space, it must be of practical benefit and it must be something that the public would wish to be done.” Britain thus awaits the Gove review.

Perhaps the most vocal opposition to vaccine passports has been from the anti-surveillance state group Big Brother Watch, which has published a list of nine reasons to oppose their introduction.

While the Biden administration has said that it wants the private sector to lead in this area, that places the U.S. about where Britain was in December. But we should not be surprised if the administration changes tune, particularly if either Britain decides to introduce them after all or if states start developing their own conflicting standards, which might require federal intervention.

In any event we can expect a combination of the privacy concerns of Europe, the divisiveness concerns of Israel, and the civil liberties concerns of Britain in the forthcoming debate.