Pros and Cons of a Digital COVID-19 Vaccination Passport

In June and July 2021, the New York Times published multiple articles on the role of a COVID-19 vaccine identity pass and the trials and tribulations associated with its rollout. The Washington Post also commented on the topic in June. What follows is a brief definition on this pass, and the pros and cons it entails.

What is a COVID-19 vaccine identity pass? It is a QR code, known as Excelsior Pass in New York, that provides information on an individual’s vaccination status. In a sense, it is a COVID-19 vaccine passport that can open the doors to social settings, erasing the fear of a super-spreader event.

What’s the point of a COVID-19 pass or passport? Cities and states must develop COVID-19 protocols to ensure public events and social gatherings are safe. Doing so is instrumental for economic activity to return to businesses, whether it be concert halls, sports stadiums, art gatherings, or movie theaters. Requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are at the core of those protocols.

At first glance, the benefits seemed obvious and advantages clear, but as I wrote down the pros and cons, a different picture emerged.

Pros:

  • It’s a step toward comprehensive digital identification. It expands the use case for digital IDs, beyond COVID-19 vaccination only, and potentially serves as a digital ID as a more comprehensive, universal source of identity information that could include driver’s license information and digital wallet information, in addition to health information, to name just a few use cases.
  • It’s a neat pilot program opportunity. The Excelsior Pass project can serve as a pilot program for later rollout to out-of-state residents and even other states. A digital COVID-19 vaccination record is already the norm in several other countries.

Cons:

  • Adoption levels are decent but low. If the vaccine passport is going to work, it needs the network effects of having a majority of people being vaccinated, downloading the app, and securing the QR code. It also requires wide adoption. Today, less than 20% of New York’s population have adopted the pass.
  • Program is of a voluntary nature and has a potentially limited shelf life. The program is voluntary, not mandatory (though a mandate seems imminent). So in a way, paper cards work fine and are widely accepted, somewhat taking away the appeal or necessity of a digital COVID-19 vaccine pass. Besides, the urgent use case surrounding the need for a COVID-19 vaccination passport may dwindle as vaccination rates rise over the coming months and restrictions around public gatherings are relaxed.
  • Privacy issues are divisive and tricky. The matter of data privacy is the biggest stumbling point, with concerns regarding the safeguarding of personal information. Divisive opinions regarding personal preferences regarding whether or not to get vaccinated and the implications for immigrants abound. In its wake, potential for discriminating against unvaccinated customers and the potential backlash is likely. 
    While the app is not designed with the intent of location or individually identifiable information, there are still privacy protections with question marks attached. The matter of future use cases and data retention policies can also be filed under data privacy.
  • There’s a big difference between enforcement and recommendation. While having an app that displays one’s vaccination status is neat and convenient for accessing public spaces or businesses, enforcing and checking customers’ vaccination status is out of any regulatory agency’s or even IBM’s control. Will each customer entering a restaurant really be checked diligently, or will crowds get let in en masse to an exciting baseball game?
  • Security threats persist. The matter of diligent security measures using multifactor authentication, for example, creates security but affects user friendliness. Balancing the two has tradeoffs, meaning there are loopholes in validating the user’s authenticity using fewer rather than more personal attributes like birthdate or zip code.
  • States must determine the best use of public resources. New York State’s contract with IBM for this project includes the cost of development, licensing, promoting fees, and administering the program, not to mention the cost of communicating with and educating the public. Cost estimates start at US$2.5 million and go up to US$17 million through 2024. No doubt, disparate views suggest that funds could be better used for other public initiatives.
  • Fraud always lurks around the corner. When we think about the number of friends and acquaintances that happily posted their vaccination card pictures on social media, it is not difficult to connect the dots to somebody copying that information (including name, birthday, vaccination date, and the vaccine brand used) for their own purposes. It’s just a matter of time before somebody sees this as an opportunity and sells fake vaccine cards.
  • But wait, there’s more. Manual errors and technology glitches are inevitable and don’t help the user experience. Digital passes are only partially useful unless they have access to a comprehensive federal vaccination database. Multiple standards can obscure a comprehensive view of the topic. And last but not least, fortune, in this case, favors the technology-savvy and smartphone user crowd, leaving those on the other side of the digital divide in the dust.

This topic doesn’t have an easy answer; if it did, we would have moved on. But it is a fascinating issue, requiring careful considerations for and accountability to all parties involved.

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