Experts warn of security and privacy challenges around vaccine passports

By on 23/03/2021
Vaccine passports raise serious problems around secure data sharing and privacy, experts have said. Credit: ŽupaBA VUCBA/Wikimedia

Implementing COVID-19 vaccine certificates will present policymakers with a range of challenges around secure data-sharing with the private sector and protecting citizens’ privacy, experts told a parliamentary committee in the UK today.

Governments across the world are considering whether and how to implement ‘passporting’ systems, enabling people to prove their vaccination or testing status for COVID-19 so they can access events, services and possibly work.

While the UK is considering how effective COVID-19 certificates would be at reducing risk, other countries such as Australia, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden are working on plans.

But speaking at a hearing of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) today, a panel of experts and politicians explored how both verifying vaccine certificates and justified exemptions for vaccination could result in security concerns or discrimination against some citizens.

Private companies’ access to data

On the issue of verifying identity, Jonathan Wolff, professor of values and public policy at the University of Oxford, said that any vaccine passports would need to be rigorously verifiable to prevent fraud.

But, he added, “as soon as you think about the protections you need to put in against fraud, then that passport itself will have to contain quite a lot of information.”

Such information could include access to population-level medical data, according to Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a pressure group that campaigns on civil liberties.

“What [verification] would require is [for] private companies to verify vaccination status and, if we go down the route of dual vaccination and test status, then test status as well,” Carlo said. “This means that these private companies would have to access the NHS backbone really, and at a population level.”

There are “around eight or so” trials ongoing in the UK for private companies to develop some type of passporting solution, Carlo said. “I would be very concerned about opening that up to private companies to access from a security point of view, and from the individual’s data protection point of view,” she noted.

Potential for discrimination

Governments may also need to introduce exemptions to any passporting system to prevent discrimination against people who cannot be vaccinated, such as pregnant women.

But, said Carlo, this could itself raise “an insurmountable privacy issue”. For example, an employee might not want to reveal to an employer that she is pregnant. But, under a vaccine regime, an employer would know she was a woman of childbearing age who was exempt from the vaccine and might be able to guess.

“This would really undo decades of progress that women have made in the context of employment rights,” Carlo said.

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