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As people around the world prepare for COVID-19 vaccinations , documenting the shots are becoming an important step in easing cross-border travel. Airports, workplaces and public places may soon require people to produce records of their inoculation status.
Earlier this month, a coalition of technology companies, including Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce, said it is developing a system to help individuals keep a record of their health status in digital format known as a ‘vaccine passport’.
What is a vaccine passport?
A vaccine passport is an e-certificate that stores and records jabs and COVID-19 test status. It can be kept in a smartphone app or in other digital formats. Its contents can be flashed at security check points when people travel across borders.
The World Health Organisation last year said, it is working on an e-vaccination certificate, a “smart yellow card” or a digital version of the yellow vaccine booklets used in many countries, Reuters had reported.
International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) AOKpass, the Common’s Project Foundation’s CommonPass and technology company IBM’s Digital Health Pass are some digital health passports in the process of development.
Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and United Airlines have begun rolling out CommonPass in select flights.
How does it work?
A vaccine passport is not physical passport like the name suggests, but an app. Users can download the app on their smartphones and enter details of their recent COVID-19 test result, temperature scans and inoculation information. Based on the given details, the app will specify whether the user is safe to travel, much like contact-tracing apps that became prevalent last year. Some apps may also generate a QR code that will state the traveller's status.
The inputs need to be verified by the issuing organisation - a certified testing centre or a hospital.
How secure is your data?
IBM and ICC said their digital health passport will use blockchain technology to enable verification of health credentials. IBM also said user information will be encrypted on their smartphone with controls on who can access it.
The coalition of tech firms have launched the Vaccination Credential Initiative, and have said its app will store immunisation credentials in a safe, encrypted format. The initiative's app will store immunisation record in an encrypted format.
But despite their claims, transparency and data protection required for such apps are not defined, according to Swapna Sundar, an intellectual property lawyer.
Aarogya Setu, India's very own contact-tracing app is one such example. The app was criticised of accessing and storing user data via Bluetooth and IP address, putting its million users' privacy, autonomy, and dignity at risk.
"Vaccination proof can be produced in the form of a vaccination certificate, as is being done for persons entering India from countries from polio-endemic countries. Such certificate called an international certification of vaccine or prophylaxis - ICVP - is carried in the hand-luggage. So, there is no requirement to put COVID-19 information online, " Sundar added.
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Online record-keeping could also be done with a political perspective to conduct surveillance and keep track of user data including which vaccine they received and the hospital they received the inoculation, she added.
Eventually, users will not be able to control the data that gets stored online through contact-tracing and digital health apps, leaving them vulnerable, Sundar noted.
Earlier this month, Denmark said it is developing a vaccine passport for people who received shots, a move that may enable them to travel to countries where such proof may be required, Reuters had reported.
Estonia also said last year it was testing a “digital immunity passport” to track those who had recovered from COVID-19, although questions remained over whether or for how long people remain protected.
It remains to be seen how the roll-out of vaccine passports will pan out in the coming year.