“This great moment of hope must not be seen opportunistically as yet another data grab”
US health regulators have previously approved two COVID vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, to start mass inoculations against the virus. According to estimates, around two million people have already received the jabs.
Los Angeles County has launched a digital receipt system for those vaccinated against COVID, but critics are sending concerns about a “two-tiered society” the effort could create by potentially infringing on citizens’ personal data.
The initiative was launched this week in partnership with tech firm Healthvana, according to Bloomberg. Those vaccinated in LA would thus able to receive confirmations on their phones which can be then accessed and showed through Apple Wallet or its Android alternative.
The original purpose of the plan was to make sure that those who had received the first anti-COVID shot would not miss the follow-up jab – something that would otherwise send doses of vaccines to waste. But according to Healthvana CEO Ramin Bastani, the verification could also be used as a kind of digital “passport” used “to prove to airlines, to prove to schools, to prove to whoever needs it” that the person in question has an immunity against coronavirus.
Surveillance & Hierarchy Concerns
However, the Privacy International group has warned about potential dangers the so-called “immunity passport” or vaccination certificate could create by undermining human rights through overreaching surveillance.
“This great moment of hope must not be seen opportunistically as yet another data grab,” the statement from the group reads.
“Until everyone has access to an effective vaccine, any system requiring a passport for entry or service will be unfair. The vaccine is a public health exercise, and must not be a new discriminator,” the Privacy International added.
Back in May, the American Civil Liberties Union had already warned that “any immunity passport system endangers privacy rights by creating a new surveillance infrastructure to collect health data”.
“It is one thing for an employee to voluntarily disclose their COVID-19 status to an employer on a one-off basis. But it is another for that information to be collected and retained, either by the government or by private companies offering immunity certifications,” the ACLU said, suggesting that the current legal framework “may not be sufficient to prevent this information from being shared, especially if it is held by private entities”.
The effort could also “worsen existing racial, disability, and economic disparities in America”, the union claimed.
“Immunity passports incentivise vulnerable people to contract the disease, and raise the prospect of another hierarchical system, separating us into two categories — those with COVID-19 immunity, who are given preferential access to employment, housing, or public accommodations — and those without,” the ACLU explained.
The questions over a potential division of society with COVID vaccinations intensified after US entertainer Ticketmaster said in November that it could allow event organisersoperating through its app to require negative coronavirus test or a proof of vaccination for attendees. The news sparked a backlash back then, prompting the company to clarify that “there is absolutely no requirement from Ticketmaster mandating vaccines/testing for future events”. But the gloomy mood has hung in the air.
The travel industry has also been engaged into similar efforts, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) doubling down on efforts to launch the IATA Travel Pass to let passengers provide digital verification of tests or COVID vaccinations they have received to authorities, as well as to inform them about measures they would require to travel.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now authorised Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use. Trump administration expects that tens of millions of Americans would be able to receive the jabs in the coming year – but the effort is still limited only to those aged 16 or older.