Vaccine Passport Apps: The Latest Covid Tech Is Upon Us

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The concept of a passport is probably older than you think. Though it might be heavily associated with the early days of international air travel, the documents actually date back to the early 15th century. Indeed, Shakespeare himself has King Henry V use the term in his famous Crispin’s Day speech at the Battle of Agincourt:

Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made.” (Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii)

Though Shakespeare may have captured the term in English literary amber, its origins are actually with Henry’s opponents, the French. An article outlining it’s history tells us:

“The French word passeport dates back to 1420 under the reign of Louis XI and first appeared in Lyon as a certificate issued by the authorities for the free circulation of merchandise. In 1464, the notion was extended to people and the “passeport” became “a safe conduct issued by an authority guaranteeing the free circulation of a person”, close to the present notion of passport.”

Fast-forward a few hundred years and, though our regular passports might be gathering dust, we’re at the dawn of a new era of so-called “vaccine passports” that promise to allow us to circulate freely — at least within our own communities and countries. Following a year of COVID chaos and repeated lockdowns, it’s likely that citizens across the globe will be chomping at the bit to download whatever app is needed to get them back in the game when it comes to sporting events, concerts, museums, galleries, and any other place that people convene to have fun.

The vaccine passport = the happy passport. No?

What is a vaccine passport?

It’s worth establishing what a vaccine passport actually is as there seems to be a lot of confusion. Deferring to the sober judgment of NPR, it’s best described as a “way to demonstrate a person’s health status, generally through a smartphone app or a QR code that has been printed“. Sounds simple enough.

In fact, just like a regular passport, you’re essentially providing a third party with some kind of official evidence to prove you are what you say you are. In this case, that you are vaccinated. And similar to a regular passport, there isn’t one universal vaccine passport but many, developed in different ways by different companies, governments, US states, etc. So checking which ones are legit will likely take a little knowledge, a little trust, and probably a keen eye.

Hold on, this is starting to sound complicated…

Actually, it’s not really anything new. Travelers have had to share proof of vaccinations for years and those proofs occasionally vary. But now evidence of vaccination is being operationalized on a grand scale right across the globe, and there’s already a fair amount of skepticism.

But why?

  1. Remember contact tracing?
    Gather round children, and let me tell ye the story of the contact tracing apps. A concept rolled-out by our technology overlords long, long ago. They came and went, never to be seen again.

    Writing for WIRED, Albert Fox Cahn and Mahima Arya put it well:

    “Early in the pandemic, we were promised that exposure notification apps would keep us safe. After months of promotion and millions in development, the apps failed. In many communities, these contact-tracing apps are now half-forgotten relic of the pre-vaccine world.”

    A research project called GPAW (Global Pandemic App Watch) found that uptake of contact tracing apps was so lamentably low in most cases that there were very few success stories when it came to improving the safety of citizens.

    This isn’t to say that vaccine passport apps will necessarily fail — there’s certainly a greater incentive to download one — but just that the cynicism is not entirely unfounded. And there are other proven ways to do the same thing without spending epic amounts of public funds, like paper proof and traditional registries of the kind schools use (and are advocated for by Fox Cahn and Arya).

  2. Surveillance
    Just over a year ago now, questioned whether contact tracing was a way for some governments to habituate blanket population surveillance. If that was the plan, then it has failed thus far. But emergencies really are great opportunities to introduce longer term fixtures, so could a vaccine passport represent a second attempt to harvest and store live data about population health, habits and movement? To make good on the promise of “syndromic surveillance”?

    Describing apps like New York’s newly launched Excelsior Pass, Fox Cahn and Arya write:

    “[They] act like a virtual bouncer, a check you have to pass every time you enter a venue. These scans create a new, inescapable web of geolocation tracking, building out a map of our most intimate moments.

    As with contact tracing, this will be happening without any evidence to demonstrate the technology actually works to keep us safe. Even if it does, any kind of digital system is clearly also vulnerable to data breaches and fraud.

  3. Inequality
    Perhaps the biggest concern around vaccine passports is that they threaten to embed existing health inequality in a variety of ways.

    First, some worry that vaccine passport apps pre-suppose that citizens have a smartphone. Those that don’t could be frozen out of certain services and venues, or at the very least doomed to endlessly trot out a verbal explanation that will sink or swim based on the experience of the gatekeeper.

    Second, we know that many elderly members of the public struggled to make COVID-19 vaccine appointments. It’s likely that older generations and those with learning difficulties could find themselves similarly frustrated with a whizzy vaccine app.

    Last, we already know that medical inequality is an issue right across the globe. The New York Times describes the racial disparities in the US vaccine rollout:

    “Communities of color, which have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, have also received a smaller share of available vaccines. The vaccination rate for Black people in the United States is half that of white people, and the gap for Hispanic people is even larger, according to a New York Times analysis of state-reported race and ethnicity information.”

    It is for this reason — the idea that certain demographics, minorities, or those of a particular economic status could be locked out of a vaccine passport for now — that this month the World Health Organization said it would not support such a project yet.

  4. Trust
    Technology is not a replacement for trust. From what can be ascertained, there will be quite the patchwork of incompatible vaccine passport apps — at least to start with (including no centrally administrated passport in the US). Though there are hundreds of companies and technologists working on establishing standards and methods of interoperability, this will take time.

    Jenny Wanger, the director of programs for Linux Foundation Public Health told CNN that at the very beginning it will be reminiscent of the old days of AOL email, whereby users could only email other AOL users.

    This incompatibility means that these expensive digital systems will either be pretty limited in their use or there will have to be some level of flexibility — or trust — when choosing to validate “alien” passports. Whichever turns out to be the case, it’s difficult to see the benefit over a standard shared registry or a system that grants the same privileges to those who can produce paper evidence of full vaccination.

    Health safety and privacy are not mutually exclusive. At the MIT Media Lab, Ramesh Raskar, has been leading an effort to develop a solution that includes both a paper certificate that anyone can easily carry as well as a free digital pass that works even without cell service (NYT). That a very small minority of citizens are hell bent on committing fraud in order to get into a ballgame shouldn’t be used to justify a system of mass surveillance that compromises us all.

    Especially as vaccine apps can be broken too (in just 11 minutes in the case of Excelsior..!).


It’s inevitable, as the world opens up, that occasionally reassurances about safety will be necessary to prevent regression. But if vaccine passport apps are necessary, the public are entitled to explanations in terms of their efficacy, accessibility, and levels of intrusion.

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