A citizens’ privacy organization released a report warning of the dangers behind vaccine passports and similar apps that track a person’s Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination status. The report by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) noted how vaccination tracking apps worsen existing inequalities and threaten people’s privacy. The report came as many entities have proposed the use of digital credentials to determine if Americans got the COVID-19 vaccine.

The report, released on June 2, focused on New York state’s Excelsior Pass. People who downloaded the program on their mobile phones or computers can use it to generate proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result. Businesses and event venues would then scan the QR code generated by the pass before people are allowed to enter.

Developed by IBM and Salesforce, the pass has been downloaded over a million times since it was first launched in March 2021. A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the Excelsior Pass is voluntary and establishments must also accept proof of vaccinations printed on paper.

The spokesperson added: “The entire system was created with privacy and security in mind. However, those who post personal information online … risk having someone use their information to create a false record. [This] is why every Excelsior Pass has to be cross-referenced with [a] photo ID when you enter a venue.”

According to STOP Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn, the passes can easily be forged – greatly diminishing their effectiveness. He added that it only took him 11 minutes to download another New Yorker’s pass using only information from social media. “This is something that we’ve seen time and time again in American online credentials. It’s very difficult to have a system that is accessible to everyone and is still robust against fraud,” he told The Hill.

In the same vein, Cahn predicted that other projects such as Microsoft and Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI) and the Walmart vaccine app will likely face the same issues. A Walmart spokesperson said the company’s goal is “simply to give people digital access to their health record, so they are empowered to use it how and when they want.” Meanwhile, VCI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vaccine passports and tracking apps only worsen discrimination

The STOP report further noted that digital vaccine credentials threaten to make existing inequalities worse. According to the report, vaccination rates for Black and Hispanic people nationwide continue to fall behind national averages. Working-class Americans of all ethnicities would also face challenges in getting vaccinated. These included going to vaccination centers, taking care of their children as they recover from vaccination and inability to take time off from work.

Furthermore, it said that the roughly 15 percent of Americans who do not have a smartphone may not be able to use the vaccine tracking apps despite being vaccinated. “If vaccine passport requirements are implemented, individuals who struggle to get the vaccine may lose their job or find themselves barred from stores, transit and public life,” the report noted. 

Cahn commented: “As the [public health] guidance evolves and we start to see increasingly different recommendations for those of us who are and aren’t vaccinated, it puts greater pressure on the public, businesses and governments to figure out who has got a [COVID-19] shot.” He continued that people putting “so much faith … in such an unproven technology” was rather alarming.

Fortunately, a number of Republican governors have stood up against vaccine passports. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis led the way through his April 2 mandate banning businesses in the Sunshine State from requiring such proof of vaccination. He said during a March 29 press conference: “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”

DeSantis added: “Requiring so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports for taking part in everyday life … would create two classes of citizens based on vaccination.” The Florida governor also expressed privacy concerns over how large corporations would handle people’s health data, comparing it to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

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