Will Vaccine Passports Jump Start Travel Or Threaten Privacy?

A picture taken on March 3, 2021 in Paris shows a vaccine vial reading “Covid-19 vaccine” and a … [+]

A vaccine passport is an electronic record that shows that an individual has had a recent negative test for the coronavirus, or, increasingly, has been vaccinated against the disease.

Why is the travel industry pushing passports? The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says, “To re-open borders without quarantine and restart aviation, governments need to be confident that they are effectively mitigating the risk of importing COVID-19. This means having accurate information on passengers’ COVID-19 health status.”

There is a plethora of potential passports, which generally present as an app or digital record on your smart phone. These include the IATA Travel Pass, being tested by several airlines, and CommonPass, a digital platform being tested by Jet Blue, Lufthansa and United. The EU Digital Green Pass would include both vaccination records and recent COVID-19 test results. Its aim: restarting European tourism by June. The identity verification company Clear is planning a HealthPass.

Who could object to putting digital proof of vaccination on your phone, to show to airlines, hotels and border control? Or to my mask-less neighbor, who demanded when I spoke to her through my mask, “Are you clean?”

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But as TIME put it, “The [vaccine passport] idea is not without controversy, particularly among human rights activists, data protection advocates and countries with limited access to vaccines.’

“Right now there is an understandable push to reopen society; we’ve all been making sacrifices. But there have been many technologies offered up as solutions in this pandemic that have not panned out, and programs deployed without proper consideration over who will have access to this sensitive medical data, how long they’ll get to keep it, or who they are allowed to share it with,” says Hayley Tsukayama, a legislative activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Rushing into using these electronic passports without properly considering the equity, privacy, and security risks is a mistake.”

PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA, 24 FEBRUARY: “(EDITORIAL USE ONLY – MANDATORY CREDIT – “MALAYSIAN MINISTRY OF … [+]

A coalition of British doctors and lawyers say vaccine passports would be discriminatory and “increase state power over our lives.” Their letter to the British government concludes “Vaccine Passports have no place in a democratic and free society and would be a profoundly illiberal, undemocratic, and un-British policy.”

To the travel industry in general and the airlines in particular, electronic proof of vaccination is key to re-opening the world. While airline officials insist that flying is safe (a Harvard study says safer than grocery shopping) U.S. international flights are now at 20% of capacity, due to worldwide quarantines and passenger reluctance. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce says the airline will not fly internationally until October. When it does, Qantas said all passengers must be vaccinated.

US airline industry group Airlines for America (A4A) has proposed a ‘temporary COVID-19 health credential’, or CHC. A4A sent a letter to the White House COVID-19 Recovery Team noting that today’s “diverse and fragmented digital health credentials…risk causing confusion, reducing compliance and increasing fraud.” The airline group hopes that involving the Centers for Disease Control will help establish federal guidelines for COVID-19 health credentials, to increase protections against the virus while improving “airline efficiency and safeguarding privacy.”

Airlines support the pass concept as it means far less hassle getting passengers through quarantines. The dream is a packed airliner (including middle seats) full of fully vaccinated people. Indeed, when I finally got my first shot this week, I was so excited I put my new vaccination card inside my actual passport.

What is the difference between “temporary COvID-19 health credentials” (CHC) and a “vaccine passport”? A4A’s SVP Legislative and Regulatory Policy Sharon Pinkerton said, “A passport is something you MUST HAVE to travel. I don’t think policy makers are contemplating a mandate that you have a vaccine passport. We are talking about a digital health credential—a mechanism to make it easier to travel.”

Passengers queue at the check-in counter ahead of their flight to India at Israel’s Ben Gurion … [+]

When I mentioned to Pinkerton I finally got my first dose, she asked, “Did you get a little piece of paper when you got vaccinated? Do you know how many types of cards there are? No one know what all the little cards look like. The testing certificates all have the same problems. It is not a standardized process.”

Asked about privacy and data security issues, Pinkerton said, “It’s the difference between an actual passport vs. digital credential on your phone. Carriers do not want to have your medical information. All you are showing is something like a QR code. You are sharing your information with whoever you choose to. We are asking for standards and want it to be interoperable as well.”

Will a passport be necessary to get on a plane? “No, but it will make it a lot easier to travel if you sign up for the program,” says Pinkerton. “A digital system with a certified registry of labs, it’s a lot harder to lie. There are going to be people who don’t have a smart phone, there will be accommodations.”

Airlines, hotels and destinations do not want to miss another summer travel season as infections drop and vaccinations ramp up. With Europe’s relatively slow vaccine rollout, “This summer could resemble something out of an E. M. Forster novel, with vaccine-rich Americans and Brits taking over southern Europe’s holiday hotspots, while locals are forced to stay at home.”

To restart British tourism. Spain is offering ‘green corridors.’ For Greece, Brits with certification might “be allowed to use a “green” lane, rather than a lengthy queue where border officials check for negative COVID tests.” U.S. ‘elite’ flyers heading overseas might beat lines by checking in at the airline lounge with a vaccination pass.

But such favorable treatment for pass-carrying passengers has struck a nerve. The concept of “vaccine equity”—that all nations and groups have equitable access to vaccines—has gained worldwide acceptance. When poor countries may not be fully vaccinated until 2024, it may be in questionable taste for rich travelers to use ‘vaccine passports’ to saunter onto first-class flights.

TOPSHOT – People display their cards after getting vaccinated with the Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine … [+]

Millions of potential U.S. travelers may not get vaccinated due to a lack of availability, health conditions or, most vexing to passport planners, “vaccine reluctance.” Alternatives for such people, like the 1/3 of the US military who have refused the vaccine, might include heightened testing, continued mask wearing and quarantine.

While many will no doubt download a pass to avoid such hassles, other have questions about “temporary digital certificates.” How temporary are they? What groups are providing the vaccine data? What format will it be stored in? How will it be encrypted? Will every airline accept every passport?

Fraud, from people lying about COVID-19 status to get on planes, to forged cards or digital certificates, is also possible. So are travel partnerships with what the EFF calls “unprecedented sharing of person, al information.” American Airlines recently announceed a breach of its frequent flyer loyalty program via a third-party company.

Nonetheless, if you choose to carry a vaccine passport, it will no doubt make it easier to travel in a world slowly becoming post-COVID-19.

I’ve won several journalism awards, and my writing on travel has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Way, Southwest Airlines Spirit, Successful Meetings and

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