The case for (and against) vaccine passports

Vaccine passports need to be uniform, simple, and not contain extraneous private information, says expert.

The EU already has one, so why not Canada and the United States?

Will we need to show a vaccine passport when travelling post-pandemic? (Michelle Parise)

As much of the world lumbers out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are now turning their attention to travel and other activities, like going to sporting events.

But what if those things were only available to those who had proof of vaccination? The road to a vaccine passport is fraught, says law professor and bioethicist Glenn Cohen.

Here's part of his conversation with Spark host Nora Young.

Canada and the U.S. are among the countries who are well into their vaccination campaigns who have yet to release a nationally recognized certificate or passport. The EU introduced the digital green pass for travel within the bloc and other countries have come up with their own. So with all these variations on the vaccine passport, what are some of the challenges when it comes to international travel?

The first is just authenticity. Can you actually verify that it is a real proof of vaccination? We've seen, unfortunately, in the United States, [passports] being offered on eBay and elsewhere, people basically selling blank or fake proof of vaccination. So that's one issue that's a little disturbing, unfortunately. Another is just questions about privacy, how much information is contained in these documents? And especially in the digital versions? Is it possible that they will be hacked? What would that mean? And then I think the most pressing issue is actually one of equity. And that is, in the United States, we're doing fairly well in vaccination rates. Canada recently, I think, is at number one for first vaccine doses in the world at the moment, but most of the world doesn't have access to any of the vaccines. And it's going to take a very long time, especially for low and middle income countries.

Glenn Cohen is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics and the law. (Harvard Law)

Wouldn't you have to have some sort of international standard also? It means there's one person in a line with a paper thing and another person with a QR code. Doesn't that have to be standardized to make sense?

Ideally, it would be standardized. And this is something that we're seeing in countries like the United States, which have not gone for a national system, we're seeing a proliferation and a fragmentation of means of proof. So some places are asking, show me a photo of your vaccine, the state of New York has introduced its own what's called the Excelsior pass, which is a digital system. And then we have employers seeking to do the same.

A word from Canada's privacy commissioners 

In May, a Joint Statement by Federal, Provincial and Territorial Privacy Commissioners was released called Privacy and COVID-19 Vaccine Passports.

In it, they recommend that governments and businesses adhere to a set of privacy principles outlined in the statement, related to things like legal authority, and meaningful consent.

So in some ways, the worst place to end up is in this fragmented place where we have 100 different ways of doing it. You as an individual might have to share your information with lots of different types of systems, and cybersecurity might be good in some places, not so good as others. So some uniformity would be desirable. But the concern here is that the more aggregated information we have in a single place, first of all, it would mean a data breach would be kind of worrisome. 

But the other is something called problem function creep. And this is the idea that what starts as a solution for a small problem ultimately spreads to other functions when we have the technology, and people are concerned about this.

And in the United States our social security cards are a great example. It used to have a very, very small function when it was introduced. And that was its purpose. But now a number of people ask for your social security number, it's just a standard thing, you put it on a huge number of forms, and it's become a kind of de facto national ID. So there is some concern that if you build too good an infrastructure for one of these digital systems, that people will start using it for other things as well.

There have been people who've expressed considerable privacy concerns about vaccine passports. Do you share some of those concerns?

I do to some extent, although here's my take on it: a vaccine passport system contains information about you. But it's information basically [that says] what your name is, and what vaccine you got, at the most. So imagine I'm running a university or an employment space where instead of having that passport, I'm going to have individualized conversations with people about what their vaccine status looks like. In some ways, I'm more worried about the privacy disclosures and the privacy violations that are going to be involved in that set of conversations.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Glenn Cohen, click the 'listen' link at the top of the page.