No Vaccine, No Entry? Understanding the Vaccine Passport Debate

Private companies as well as various states are working to develop “vaccine passports”–a mobile app technology that will allow Americans to prove they have been vaccinated for Covid-19.

The passports work like digital badges, often in the form of QR-codes, that show the bearer has been inoculated against the coronavirus. To get approval, users of the apps manually enter some basic information such as date of birth, zip code, and the date, time and kind of vaccine they received. This information is then verified by an appropriate health authority.

For businesses in certain industries, such as restaurants, events, and travel, the technology could offer a crucial layer of protection for employee and customers. Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, is setting sail again in July, but will require vaccinations of all passengers.  

The technology is evolving and there are still many outstanding questions related to privacy protection, interoperability, and cybersecurity, as well as whether private companies or government agencies should manage the passports. 

Here’s what you need to know about the evolution of vaccine passports and whether your business should consider adopting the technology.

There are many in the works.

One of the most significant hurdles facing vaccine passports is the sheer number of them. Last week, New York State launched the Excelsior Pass, a QR-code based smartphone app developed with IBM. The World Economic Forum and the Commons Project, a technology nonprofit, are working to develop a QR-based passport for travel called The CommonPass. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is running pilot tests of its TravelPass with a number of airlines. The goal is to develop, “a global and standardized solution to validate and authenticate all country regulations regarding Covid-19 passenger travel requirements.”

Private companies are also racing to release the technology. For instance, REVIV Global, a company that offers preventative health services, launched a QR-code passport this month to help restore normal and safe operations to the hospitality, convention, sports and live events industry in Las Vegas. iProov, a company that works on biometric authentication, is also testing a Covid-19 immunity and vaccination passport. Walmart is offering an electronic verification app to customers vaccinated in its stores. Domestic airlines are testing an app called VeriFLY that helps international travelers comply with vaccine or testing requirements in other countries.

According to The Washington Post, there are at least 17 vaccine passport projects under way. The Biden administration said last week that it will leave the development of a vaccine passport in the U.S. to the private sector. The competition could cause some consternation until the winners emerge. 

The multitude of options can lead to a fragmented uptake of the tech, says Judi Korzec, founder and CEO of VaxAtlas, a vaccine management company that works with a network of 60,000 pharmacy providers to collect data on vaccinations. “With many venues and states offering their own technology, [it] can be confusing to those trying to use the technology and determining the right “pass” for their needs,” she says.

Officials are banning the use of passports entirely.

Some states and organizations have denounced immunity passports, citing discrimination against people unable or unwilling to get the vaccine. 

On April 2, Florida banned state and local government agencies, and businesses that get state funding, from requiring vaccine passports, or documentation proving that someone has been vaccinated against Covid-19. Governor Ron DeSantis said in an executive order that requiring proof of vaccination would “create two classes of citizens based on vaccination.” On Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas issued his own executive order barring state agencies and private entities receiving funds from the state from requiring proof of vaccination. The World Health Organization has also cited equity concerns and said on Tuesday that it currently did not support mandatory proof of vaccination for international travel.

There are still a lot of questions around privacy.

Many people are concerned about privacy issues or identity theft as passports require personal information. “There is increasing controversy on privacy, as it pertains to vaccination requirements and proof of vaccinations and it’ll likely be debated at the federal, state and employer level,” says Korzec. Her company is a member of the Vaccination Credential Initiative, a coalition of public and private organizations attempting to standardize how data in vaccination records is tracked. 

So far, it is mostly unclear how the various systems will record and store data and then facilitate the sharing of that data, says Yossi Zekri, CEO of Los Angeles-based Acuant, a provider of identity verification solutions for healthcare companies. Unless explicitly stated, it can be surmised that these systems will store data to some degree. What matters then is how they store it. 

He recommends people look for trusted technology that offers rigorous privacy standards, read user agreements to understand how their data will be stored and used, and understand what they’re opting in to. Especially, he notes, look for passports that secure data using public key infrastructure, or a secure, encrypted electronic transfer of information.

“The best platforms will put people in the driver’s seat controlling their data, allowing them to decide the ‘when and where,’ not store any personally identifiable information, and use end-to-end encryption,” says Zekri.