Vaccination information may show to be a minefield for privateness

Crew members and travelers of Singapore Airlines in the transit hall of Changi Airport in Singapore on January 14, 2021.

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

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the concept of a “vaccination pass” has been regularly put into circulation. Once vaccinated against Covid-19, a person could carry proof of vaccination that would allow them to travel or access services that are otherwise closed under lockdown.

The EU certificate, which avoids the use of the term “passport”, would create a common digital system for Europe, probably in the form of a smartphone app, to prove vaccination, negative test or recovery of the virus.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said a common EU-wide approach to such a certificate would “gradually restore freedom of movement in the region”.

“It is also an opportunity to influence global standards and lead by example based on our European values ​​such as data protection,” he said earlier this month.

Various industries around the world have been tinkering with these passes for months.

IBM is working with New York State on a digital health passport that uses blockchain technology to verify a person’s test or vaccine IDs. Walmart, who is shooting in its stores, recently backed the demand for vaccine certificates.

Apple and Google previously worked together to create standards for contact tracking in smartphones. The EU has suggested that the tech giants could once again partner with the World Health Organization in this effort, but WHO has since denied it.

Now that the adoption of vaccines is accelerating, the prospect of these digital passports or certificates has caught the attention of many different industries.

Data privacy

The aviation and tourism industries – both brutalized last year – were most likely to be interested in using this technology to reopen global travel.

The International Air Transport Association launched their “Travel Pass” late last year and started a test with Singapore Airlines this month.

According to Katherine Kaczynska, deputy director of corporate communications at IATA, the app was originally developed to provide evidence of a negative test. It will be expanded to include proof of vaccination.

Kaczynska added that IATA is not in favor of requiring vaccines for travel, but that the industry group is instead viewing the app as a way to open up international travel.

Ultimately, the system will be integrated into an airline’s app, but it needs to be coherent in how various vaccination passport proposals are launched and operated, Kaczynska told CNBC.

Vaccination records electronically store medical information that is displayed as a QR code.

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“We’re working closely with governments because we need to make sure things are interoperable,” she said.

“It is the governments that have to come up with a standard for digital vaccine certificates, and then we have to make sure that it works with the IATA Travel Pass and other apps. Ours are specifically designed for aviation, but for it to work there.” obviously there has to be interoperability between different standards. ”

In view of the sensitive health-related data, the launch of a digital service raises questions about privacy and data protection.

IATA works with Evernym, a blockchain company that has worked on various projects for digital decentralized identities, including a project with the Red Cross.

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

According to the European Commission, the EU executive, only “essential information” will be required for the proposed system. This includes vaccination or test data and a unique identifier for the certificate.


Nicole Hassoun, a professor at Binghamton University who specializes in public health ethics, said that providing any type of vaccination record on a large scale requires careful consideration.

With vaccines being distributed in a patchwork of demographics, passports or certificates need to allow for exceptions to avoid discriminating against those who have not yet been vaccinated or who have health reasons for not being vaccinated, she said.

“Maybe you would allow some sort of passport system, but then there have to be health exemptions. There have to be exemptions for the welfare of people who have really good reasons to access these services (e.g. travel),” Hassoun told CNBC .

This is partly why the EU proposal not only focuses on vaccination but also includes negative tests.

A particular concern is that vaccines are still very new. While data from countries like Israel look promising, more data is needed to review how effective the various vaccines are in reducing transmission and what long-term immunity will look like, Hassoun added.

“We need more data on the effects on transmission for people who have been vaccinated or those with natural immunity. How long will it take? What if there are new strains?” She said.

“We have to be careful of what the private sector is doing and what governments are doing, and making sure we regulate when we have to, and making sure they are fair to everyone.”

She warned that the provision of passports and certificates must be fair, as is currently not the case with the introduction of vaccines themselves. As western nations like the UK and the US advance, others are lagging behind, such as Brazil, which has suffered some of the worst outbreaks in the world and is grappling with its introduction.

For the EU, which is facing its own supply problems due to disputes with AstraZeneca, the clock is ticking to have the digital green certificate ready for the summer season.

The framework requires swift examination and adoption by the European Parliament and the Council if Europe and its tourism sector are to avoid a second lost summer.

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