Most of the arguments against vaccine passports are just made-up crap.
Like many of today’s social issues, much of the opposition to Covid vaccination certificates is not actually about things like medicine and public health (or, as I like to put it, “reality”). It is our bad luck that the Covid pandemic arrived after forty years of increasing polarization in the US, culminating in the rather extraordinary and quite successful effort by Republicans and the Trump administration to politicize the Covid pandemic. The vaccines have been dragged into that partisan quagmire as a symbol of something something liberals, umm, freedom!, daggone gummint, communist Nazi bastards, remember the Alamo, etcetera etcetera.
Susan Sontag wrote an essay in 1978 about Illness As Metaphor, arguing that tuberculosis and cancer were being used inaccurately as metaphors for various unappealing personal characteristics.
Today we are harming ourselves by using vaccinations as metaphor. Many of the arguments about vaccine passports aren’t really about privacy and inequality – they’re metaphors about our lack of trust. Republicans don’t trust Democrats. Fox News trains viewers not to trust science. Some people don’t trust pharmaceutical companies or big tech. Lots of people don’t trust the federal gummint. The lack of trust might not be rational, might not be based on facts, but it is now deep-seated and extends to much more than vaccinations, of course. And it makes too many people act like loons.
Karen: Bill Gates injected a microchip into my head.
Me: Umm, actually I don’t think . . .
Karen: My body is magnetic and I’m at risk every time I walk by a knife drawer.
Me: That’s not the way magnetism . . .
Me: I don’t even.
Karen: I think the vaccine is why I have irritable bowel syndrome.
Me (covering ears): TMI! TMI!
Harlan Ellison said it best: “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
I want to give you a short digest of the real issues that deserve attention as we develop vaccine passports. I’m not going to spend much time on the made-up issues.
If we have a fair and reliable way to tell who’s been vaccinated, it can be used by airlines, schools, restaurants, theaters, and businesses screening employees and customers. It would help bring things back to normal.
If unvaccinated people feel discriminated against, remember that Covid discriminates too: it only makes unvaccinated people sick. Privileged white Republicans may have to deal with the consequences of denying reality.
Let’s stay in the real world and take a quick look at inequality, privacy, security, and technical issues that need to be addressed as we develop a vaccine passport.
One of the most exciting things to happen in 2021 has been the Biden administration’s quick and effective drive to make the Covid vaccines available to everyone in the US. It minimizes the risk of repeating the shameful period in the 1800s when yellow fever immunity was used as a weapon of privilege by white survivors.
The work continues. We don’t want anyone to be denied services because they don’t have access to a vaccine. The vaccination program began with well-organized large-scale clinics in baseball stadiums and mall parking lots. I’m impressed by the government’s follow-up efforts to reach more people by working with community leaders on vaccine education and making free vaccinations available through small clinics, drug stores, schools, churches, anywhere that might reach a few more folks.
Remember my wife’s comment about traveling to Hawaii? The requirements for obtaining an acceptable Covid test and generating the required QR code were so arcane and difficult that she wondered how people could do it without a nerd in the household.
The answer is that people who can make it through the process are privileged. We are rich enough to travel to Hawaii, sure, but that’s not the important bit.
We have an Internet connection. Many people don’t.
We have a smartphone and a computer. Many people don’t.
I am used to the process of creating accounts and choosing passwords, which had to be done in several places. Many people find that confusing and a potential stumbling block.
We have the means to pay $250 for mail-in Covid tests, or up to $400 for drive-through tests that meet the state requirements.
I navigated a maze of websites to figure out Hawaii’s Safe Travels program. I’m smarter than the average bear and still wound up trapped at the exit from the Kona airport for an extra half-hour trying to get past a mistake I made when I filled out the online forms. A New York Times journalist just published an article about the complex Covid requirements for international travel with the plaintive cry:
I’m a travel reporter. I had spent the best part of an hour reading through Britain’s entry requirements. How had I still managed to get it wrong?
That’s what inequality looks like. We need – we deserve – a world where vaccinations are readily available, and we can demonstrate our vaccination status as simply as showing an ID. The benefits of a vaccine passport will be uncomfortable as long as vaccinations are difficult for minorities and low-income people and for the many countries that cannot afford or obtain vaccinations for their population.
And I hate to say it but we should take this the opportunity to get it right because this is going to happen again. It’s not our first vaccination rodeo and it won’t be our last.
Privacy & security
Privacy arguments against vaccine certificates tend to be focused on people who are not vaccinated. It is difficult to distinguish between people who are not vaccinated because they have an underlying medical condition, and people who are not vaccinated because they have the brain power of a kitchen sponge. The fear is that the app would somehow allow people to tell the difference. It’s kind of a theoretical problem.
Unvaccinated person: We must not have a vaccine passport because there is a risk that people would learn about my embarrassing medical condition.
Me: Fortunately I have a qualified medical specialist standing by. Doctor, what are the embarrassing medical conditions that would excuse vaccination?
Doctor: More or less there aren’t any.
Me: Hmm. Unvaccinated person, whisper your embarrassing condition in my ear.
Unvaccinated person (whispering): I have been watching Fox News for years.
But there is a legitimate privacy problem and it’s also a security problem. We’re describing a government agency or a tech company that will be verifying your identity by accessing some database that has personal details about you, then accessing your health data to obtain your vaccination status. The last few years have proven that it’s difficult to keep data secure. We have been sensitized by years of hacks of government agencies and credit monitoring agencies and tech companies, not to mention Facebook’s bad habit of sharing data with anyone who asks. We want the proof of vaccination to be obtained with a minimal exposure of our data, and we don’t want our vaccine passport app to be sending data back to advertisers, insurance companies, or law enforcement.
Smart people are approaching those concerns as tech problems.
The tech angle
Our health care system is fragmented and privatized. Vaccination data is scattered in databases run by state public health agencies, health care organizations, and pharmacies. It has to be matched against identity information which might be held in the same databases or might need to be obtained from some other incompatible database.
Europe is settling on the CommonPass app, a digital wallet created by the Commons Project, partnered with airport security clearance company CLEAR. The Washington Post describes it this way:
“What the health pass apps do, including CommonPass app, is evaluate your underlying health information against some set of rules,” said JP Pollak, co-founder of the Commons Project. For example, instead of exchanging actual data, the app would look for whether the record your app holds meets the standards of the specific entry requirements on the verifier’s side. Some will require more information — the Excelsior app displays your name, date of birth and the verification, so businesses will likely need to check it against an ID. “The idea is that verifiers will have a relationship with the Commons Project and will trust that the Commons Project is sort of interpreting information against guidelines and being correct,” Pollack added.
We’re not good at standards in the US. Too many governments and tech companies and nonprofits and health care companies and ad hoc organizations are working at cross-purposes on vaccine apps. A vaccine app works by generating a QR code that can be scanned by airlines and businesses to give you the green light to enter. If you have to research which app works in which location and juggle five or six apps on your phone, then the bar is too high.
That’s why the most important project today is the Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI), which includes more than 300 organizations including Microsoft, the Mayo Clinic, Cerner, Epic, the Commons Project and more. VCI is developing and encouraging everyone to adopt its “smart health cards” that can be downloaded and displayed in the app of your choice, including Apple and Google wallets.
One of the central concepts that might make people accept a vaccine passport app is that data would be verified in some controlled, minimal way and the resulting QR code would be stored locally on your phone. No server would hold the data and no data from use of the QR code would ever leave your phone, period, end of story. If we trust the VCI and CommonPass developers, you would have a proof of vaccination with literally zero risk that it could be accessed by anyone. From an interview by CNN:
“None of the data would be stored on a central server ever — and there would be a validation step to ensure that,” said VCI co-founder Dr. Brian Anderson. “Data would also never be aggregated, so an issuer wouldn’t know if a person went to this restaurant or that restaurant. It wouldn’t be able to sell movement or data to destinations either — that would be wholly inappropriate.”
The other important concept is to lower the bar by ensuring that paper certificates are available to anyone who needs one, presumably with protection against counterfeiting.
Not all of the vaccine passport apps will be built as carefully. There may be stumbles and data breaches and incompatible codes before we’re done. But the goal is worthwhile. I want a world where I scan a QR code to get into a restaurant in Sebastopol, Hanalei, or Barcelona, with assurance that Covid is outside the door, unable to get in.
In the meantime, if you’re vaccinated, try traveling again. I’ve sampled it now and it’s pretty good. I recommend it. But for now, research the Covid requirements carefully.