Here are two differing points of view on whether COVID-19 vaccine passports are beneficial.
By Arthur Caplan and Dorit Reiss
We should not be asking whether vaccine passports are good or bad. We should ask where and how knowing a person’s vaccine status can help reopen businesses and schools that we had to close, resume activities we had to put on hold, and make us safer.
The language surrounding vaccine passports has become so politicized that we are not getting a chance to discuss the real issues. Defenders of freedom maintain they don’t want to live in a society where privacy is at risk, while they merrily use Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and other social media sites that glean large amounts of data from them to alert us to their privacy concerns.
Many countries already use what we’d consider a vaccine passport by requiring that people entering show vaccine status to avoid quarantine. We cannot prevent other countries from doing this — and right now, several are either not allowing entry, or requiring visitors and/or returning citizens to quarantine. Internationally, we will surely see vaccines required and documented by hotels, trains, airlines and cruise ships. This can make those modes of travel safer and allow those that had to stop operating — like cruise ships — to get back to business.
We also need to consider what passport requirements mean for children (for whom no vaccine is available yet) and those with medical conditions that prevent vaccination. For them, mandatory testing and masking will most likely remain as recommendations for travel.
A completely different context is asking for proof of vaccination to allow large live events to take place — like sports, musical, theatrical and religious gatherings. During the pandemic, most states or business closed these. Certification of vaccination combined with other measures can offer a balance between reopening these events and keeping them closed, just as it can offer a safe way to go back to indoor restaurant dining, gyms and hair salons. This can let us pick up things the pandemic interfered with and reinvigorate industries that suffered.
Similarly, it is a way for businesses to market themselves as offering a safe environment. And while this can come with restrictions — a business can say "vaccinate or do not come in," and that’s their right — it can also be done in other ways, such as "vaccinate, or sit in a socially distanced fashion," "vaccinate for closer access to the stage," or "vaccinate for indoor seating."
The reaction to domestic certification — blanket prohibitions in some states — is unusual and irrational. It is unusual for governors or legislatures to seek to prohibit businesses from making their business safer or making it more attractive through increased safety. It is unusual to prohibit private businesses from setting their own work conditions absent a strong external reason, like safety. It is irrational in that it incentivizes your employer not to worry about your safety at work.
We can use vaccine certification to make us safer in a variety of ways — some more, some less coercive. We will see vaccine passports as necessary for travel as they always have been. The discussion we should be having is how best to reopen the world using certification rather than keep it locked down and restricted.
Arthur Caplan is director of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
Dorit Reiss is a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.
By Albert Fox Cahn
In recent days, vaccine passports have become the latest culture war flashpoint, as politicians transform a new slew of health tracking apps into the dividing line in the debate over how to recover from the pandemic. But in the rush to stake out partisan stances, both liberals and conservatives have taken positions on the apps that ignore the science, undermine public health and endanger privacy. In one extreme, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued a sweeping ban not just outlawing state-sponsored apps, but barring schools from requiring proof of vaccination, even via paper records.
Abbott’s overbroad order was a seeming response to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who launched the latest round of pandemic politics with his misguided Excelsior Pass, the first state-sponsored vaccine passport in the country. But at a moment when many are desperate for anything that will return us to normal life, Excelsior Pass’s shortcomings provide a rude wake-up call.
Vaccine passports can be uncontroversial in some instances. Updating the 1944 standard on the Carte Jaune, an official vaccination record created by the WHO and used for international travel, for the digital age raises few privacy risks. Same goes for proving vaccination for students returning to college, just as we require for many other vaccines. But the Excelsior Pass raises a very different type of privacy concern, and it’s not about health data.
For those worried about revealing their vaccine status, you’re out of luck; the government already knows. When I was able to get the COVID-19 vaccine, I completed a state registration form, telling New York State all the details. The privacy risk with vaccine passports is the potential for tracking something very different: your location.
Unlike vaccine registration for schools, where students would only have to prove their status once, vaccine passports could require us to use the apps constantly. The Excelsior Pass and other apps are being used at baseball games, concerts and performing arts venues, and that could be just the start. Vaccine passport developers want to use the technology to control access to everything from supermarkets to mass transit.
The apps create a new, inescapable layer of geolocation data tracking. This digital log maps out everything from where we protest to where we pray, with countless more mundane stops in between. That threat may seem minor to some, but it will be deeply chilling to those who fear retaliation for practicing their faith or giving voice to their beliefs.
But while the cost of these apps is clear, the benefits are murky. Vaccine passports purport to be secure, but the reality falls short of the promise. I was able to create a fake Excelsior Pass using public social media information in just 11 minutes. In my case, I had the user’s consent for the experiment, but hackers won’t be as scrupulous.
The sad truth is that there are no shortcuts out of this pandemic, no magic apps. The way we return to normal life is by doing what health officials have recommended from the start: promoting trust in the vaccine. Until we reach herd immunity, the vaccine passport apps will help politicians on both sides of the aisle get media attention and raise money, but they won’t keep Americans safe.
Albert Fox Cahn is executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a fellow at Yale Law School.