Vaccine passport privacy can prove to be a minefield

Singapore Airlines crew members and passengers at the Transit Hall of Singapore’s Changi Airport on January 14, 2121.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

When the EU announced its plans for a “digital green certificate” this month, the tourism industry breathed a sigh of relief that might be saved in the summer.

Since the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, the concept of “vaccine passport” has been regularly introduced. Once inoculated against Covid-19, a person can take proof of vaccination that will allow them to travel or access services that are otherwise closed under lockdown.

The EU certificate, which avoids using the term “passport”, would create a common digital system for Europe, possibly in the form of a smartphone application, vaccination, negative testing or proving that it has returned from the virus.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Renders said the EU’s comprehensive approach to such certification would “gradually restore free movement” in the region.

He said earlier this month that there is also an opportunity to influence global standards and lead by example based on our European values ​​such as data protection.

Different industries around the world have been glittering with this pass for months.

IBM is working with New York State on a digital health pass, which uses blockchain technology to test a person’s test or vaccine credentials, and stores Lamart, which operates shots in its stores, have recently backed vaccine credentials.

Apple Pal and Google had earlier collaborated on setting standards for contact tracing in smartphones. The European Union has suggested that tech giants may re-collaborate with the World Health Organization for these efforts, but the WHO has since denied this.

Now that vaccine rollouts are gathering momentum, the possibility of these digital passports or certificates has caught the eye of many different industries.

Data privacy

The aviation and tourism industries – both of which have been run ruthlessly over the past year – are eager to advance this technology to reopen global travel.

The International Air Transport Association introduced its “travel pass” late last year and began trials with Singapore Airlines this month.

The application will be expanded to show evidence of vaccination, according to Katherine Kazenska, assistant director of corporate communications at IATA, initially created to show evidence of negative testing.

Kakazinska added that the IATA is not in favor of making vaccines mandatory for travel, but the industry group sees the application as a way to help international travel.

Eventually the system will be integrated into the airline’s own application, but there needs to be unity in how the various proposals for vaccine passports are initiated and how they are executed, Kazinska told CNBC.

The vaccine passport stores medical information electronically displayed as a QR code.

Da-Cook | E + | Getty Images

“We are working with governments because we need to make sure things are intervening,” he said.

“There are governments that need to come out with a standard for digital vaccine certifications and then we need to ensure that the IATA works with travel passes and other applications there. Our focus is specifically on aviation but it will work there. Obviously there needs to be an interdependence between different standards. ”

Given the sensitive data related to health in the game, launching any digital service raises questions around privacy and data protection.

IATA is working with Avernium, a blockchain firm that has worked on a variety of projects for digital decentralized identification, including projects with the Red Cross.

“The main thing with the IATA Travel Pass is that it is a decentralized technology, which basically means that not all data is stored on the central database in any way. All data is stored on the passenger’s phone,” Kakazenska said.

The European Commission, according to the EU’s executive arm, will only need “essential information” for its proposed system. This includes a unique identifier for vaccine or test data and certification.


Nicole Hassoun, a professor at Binghamton University who specializes in ethics in public health, said that any type of vaccine passport needs to be carefully considered for mass deployment.

As the vaccine is distributed in a patchwork of demographics, exemptions in passports or certificates need to be considered to avoid any discrimination for those who have not been vaccinated or have health reasons for not being vaccinated, he said.

“Maybe you would allow some kind of passport system but then there should be health exceptions. There really should be welfare exceptions for people who need to access these services (such as travel).”

This is partly why the EU proposal does not just focus on vaccinations and includes negative tests.

One particular concern is that vaccines are still very new. Data coming out of countries like Israel promises promise, more data is needed to test how effective various vaccines are in reducing transmission and what long-term immunity will look like.

“How long will it last for those of us affected by vaccinations or those who may have natural immunity? What happens when there are new strains?” She said.

“We need to focus on what the private sector is doing as well as what governments are doing and make sure we regulate it if we have to and make sure it’s fair to everyone.”

He warned that the provision of passports and certificates must be the same as currently their vaccines are not rollout. While Western countries like the UK and US move forward, others are left behind, such as Brazil, which has faced some of the world’s worst outbursts and is struggling with its rollout.

For the EU, which is facing its own supply issues amid disputes with AstraZeneca, the watch is preparing a digital green certificate for the summer for Tu.

This framework will need to be quickly observed and adopted by the European Parliament and Council if Europe and its tourism sector is to avoid another lost summer.