The Current

COVID-19 vaccine passports must address privacy, equity concerns, say experts

As more countries look to adopt digital COVID-19 vaccine passports, one American tech expert says the certificates should be developed using a “privacy-preserving approach.”

Iceland became 1st European nation to implement vaccine certificates in January

A medical worker loads a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Some countries are introducing vaccine passports that show when citizens have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

As more countries look to adopt digital COVID-19 vaccine passports, one American tech expert says the certificates should be developed using a "privacy-preserving approach."

"There's a lot of us who have deep concerns about issues of equity, issues of, obviously, privacy … if you were to implement the [vaccine passport] system," said Brian Behlendorf, managing director of blockchain, health care and identity at the Linux Foundation, a non-profit that is working on vaccine passport software.

"And there's a set of us who are trying to say, instead of doing the typical Silicon Valley approach of 'move fast and break things,' how do we be thoughtful about how these technologies get deployed?"

In late January, Iceland became the first European nation to issue vaccine certificates to citizens who have been inoculated against the novel coronavirus. It will also recognize certificates from other countries, allowing people who've gotten a full course of shots to skip quarantine when arriving in the country.

Several other countries are moving to follow suit, including Denmark, Sweden and Israel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has opposed the idea of implementing vaccine passports in Canada, saying it's fraught with challenges.

The Linux Foundation is hosting a project called the COVID-19 Credentials Initiative, to develop open-source software that will help public health authorities fight the coronavirus. That work includes developing the building blocks of code that health officials could use to create vaccine passports.

The idea is to accelerate "the adoption of this technology in a standardized and harmonized way," Behlendorf told Galloway. 

How would a digital passport work? 

Behlendorf said a digital vaccine passport could live on a person's smartphone, perhaps sitting in a digital wallet as opposed to being hosted on a remote server. 

A person could then present their passport when crossing borders or boarding a flight, for example.

He said he suspects other businesses such as concert venues or movie theatres may eventually require customers to show their vaccine passports as well, to prevent the spread of the disease.

Behlendorf added that paper versions of the passports would also need to be made available for individuals who don't have access to a smartphone.

Brian Behlendorf is the managing director of blockchain, health care and identity at the Linux Foundation. (Linux Foundation)

Although critics have raised concerns about the use of vaccine passports in allowing people to access goods and services, Behlendorf said he believes there is "a certain amount of inevitability to it."

What's important, he said, is implementing the passports "in a way that doesn't create a traceable trail of your activities across all these different circumstances."

Risks versus rewards

Alison Thompson, a bioethicist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, says that even though vaccine passports may seem inevitable, society should still be having a "serious" conversation about their implementation. 

"Really what we're talking about here is allowing people with passports rights and privileges that won't be available to the people who don't have a vaccine passport," she told Galloway. 

"And given that there are huge inequities in access to vaccines globally, and even within Canada, you know, this raises all kinds of concerns about whether this is going to be fair — not just whether it'll be confidential information."

Thompson added that it remains unclear whether the benefits of such certificates will outweigh the risks.

Alison Thompson, a bioethicist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, says there needs to be a 'serious' conversation about the issues around COVID-19 vaccine passports. (Steven Southon)

One possible outcome of implementing vaccine passports is that people who have them could be exploited to do jobs that need to be done in the public sphere, while those without the passports could be barred from employment, she said.

She also questions what kind of personal health information could be collected and shared through digital vaccine passports.

"Ultimately, it will be likely a decision for lawmakers, and, you know, there'll have to be some some real hard looks at discrimination law and basic human rights law to determine how you could use this kind of technology appropriately," she said.

"We need to strike a balance there between getting back to normal and not doubling down on the inequities that we've seen from COVID."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel, Zoe Yunker and Celeste Decaire.

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