Toronto

Few likely to forge vaccine certificates, medical exemptions, Ontario says, but expert says it's easy

Ontario's health ministry says it expects that very few people will falsify their COVID-19 vaccine certificates and medical exemptions once the province's proof of vaccination system goes into effect on Wednesday.

Ministry says it's confident 'overwhelming majority of Ontarians will do the right thing'

An example of an Ontario vaccine certificate. The province's proof of vaccination system comes into effect on Wednesday. (CBC)

Ontario's health ministry says it expects that very few people will falsify their COVID-19 vaccine certificates and medical exemptions once the province's proof of vaccination system goes into effect on Wednesday.

An expert in Toronto, however, says it wouldn't be hard to forge such documents to gain entry into specific venues.

"There are no security features present on these documents. These documents are basically PDF documents," said Dr. Shabnam Preet Kaur, a forensic document examiner with Docufraud Canada, a Toronto-based company.

Kaur said different kinds of software can be used to manipulate PDFs. "It only take five minutes to make changes," she added.

Starting on Wednesday in Ontario, people will have to provide proof of vaccination status, along with photo identification, to go into dine-in restaurants, bars, nightclubs, sports facilities, cinemas, theatres, strip clubs, among other venues. The vaccine certificate can be downloaded or printed. 

People who cannot get vaccinated due to medical exemptions will be allowed to use a doctor's note until their medical exemption is integrated into a digital vaccine certificate, according to the province.

Ontario will roll out a digital proof of vaccination that will feature a unique QR code on Oct. 22. The province has said it will launch a new verification app to make it easier for businesses and organizations to read and verify that a digital vaccine receipt is valid. Paper documents will still be accepted after Oct. 22.

A view of the inside of Sarah's Cafe and Bar on the Danforth. Ontarians must provide proof of vaccination status, along with photo ID, to go into dine-in restaurants, bars, nightclubs, sports facilities, cinemas, theatres, strip clubs, among other venues, as of Sept. 22. (CBC)

Kaur said while anyone with basic editing software can manipulate a vaccine certificate in PDF form quickly, it will be much harder to falsify a digital vaccine certificate with a QR code. 

"It's actually difficult to manipulate QR codes because for that, you need special skills, and most of the people, they don't have those kinds of skills," she said.

She recommended that anyone looking for fraudulent certificates should check for changes in font size, font style and spacing.

Kaur said she thinks the province could prevent fraud by relying on QR codes from the start of the vaccine certification system and that certificates with such codes should be the "only process" to verify vaccination status.

Safeguards will deter fraud, ministry says

Bill Campbell, spokesperson for the Ontario health ministry, said there are safeguards in place to deter people from falsifying vaccine certificates and to discourage doctors from issuing fraudulent medical exemptions or individuals from presenting fake doctor's notes.

"When it comes to the health and safety of our communities, we are confident the overwhelming majority of Ontarians will do the right thing," Campbell said in an email on Monday.

Campbell said people who provide inaccurate of falsified information to a business could receive a ticket for $750, or a penalty of up to $100,000, and up to a year in jail.

Very few people will be eligible for medical exemptions and the province expects most people will have proof of vaccination, he added.

"It is an act of professional misconduct to sign or issue documents that are false or misleading. Potential sanctions range from fines to the revocation of a physician's certification of registration."

According to the Ontario government, the vaccine certificate system is an attempt to encourage everybody to get their shots, prevent another lockdown and protect the capacity of hospitals to care for patients.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist, says: 'Will this be a huge issue with fake certificates and unvaccinated individuals going into those indoor venues? My gut tells me, no, it probably won't be.' (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist based at Toronto General Hospital, said a vaccine certificate system is a way to ensure that people in an indoor space or venue are fully vaccinated and it provides a major layer of protection against COVID-19. Fake vaccine certificates would create an element of uncertainty, he said.

If there are unvaccinated people in an indoor venue, then such things as proper ventilation, good crowd control and patrons wearing masks could act as a counterbalance to provide protection, he said.

"Will this be a huge issue with fake certificates and unvaccinated individuals going into those indoor venues? My gut tells me, no, it probably won't be. It'll be annoying and we're going to hear a lot about this," Bogoch said.

"But it probably won't be a significant issue unless, of course, there's a large number of people who are faking certificates and all happen to be in similar indoor venues," he said.

"It could happen. I just don't think it's going to be a very likely event or widespread issue."

With files from Dale Manucdoc and Muriel Draaisma

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