No jab, no job? Injecting ethical considerations into Vaccine Passport tech (1/2)

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan March 31, 2021
As the Vaccine Economy emerges, will we all be expected to carry Vaccine Passports for entry back to normality? If so, can we be sure the ethical considerations are being thought through first?


As vaccination programs accelerate in many parts of the world, attention is increasingly turning to what’s proving to be a hugely contentious topic - so-called Vaccine Passports. Advocates urge they should be rolled out as a key enabler to re-opening economies, while critics denounce them as freedom-threatening ID schemes by any other name. 

To be fair, the controversy is at least bi-partisan in nature, with attacks on the concept coming from both left and right of the political spectrum. In the US, for example, liberal feminist and former Clinton advisor Naomi Wolf warns that such passports will be “literally the end of human liberty in the West", while Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene bolsters her conspiracy theorist street cred by dubbing Vaccine Passports “Biden’s Mark of the Beast” and declaiming that any organization that engages with the idea is an example of “Corporate Communism” (or fascism - she wasn't entirely clear which was which...).

The main point is this is, as it were, an equal opportunities controversy and one that the IT sector finds itself at the heart of, both as putative user and provider of the underlying technology to enable such passport schemes in practice.

The industry has been (rightly) proud of its efforts to support COVID counter-measures, such as track-and-trace, and latterly technologies and practices to support a safe return to the workplace. But this is different. The  technology is there to deliver Vaccine Passports, but there are ethical circles to square about the extent of their scope and how they might be implemented in practice. It’s very much a case of just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Or is it? 

Pro and anti

The arguments for and against passports have become well-rehearsed in a comparatively short space of time. Proponents of such digital credentials argue that even a simple, limited function app would allow for a faster, safer re-opening of retail, hospitality, places of entertainment and workplaces while also boosting confidence in the safety of travel, particularly international flights. This in turn will boost economies around the world that have been brought to their knees by the pandemic. 

Countering those presumed benefits are a number of deterrent factors, most notably concerns around inclusion and personal freedoms. In the case of the former, there will always be those in society who are not vaccinated, either for medical reasons or through personal choice/conviction. If Vaccine Passports are mandated for entry to, for example, a bar or a shop, how do those establishments cater for the unvaccinated? Will there be a societal division between the vaxxed class and the un-vaxxed under-class? Medical data also suggests that there are already clear demographic schisms related to COVID, with poor people and People of Color having taken a bigger hit from the virus, while certain ethnic minority categories have professed greater vaccine-skepticism to date. Passports would, argue critics, exacerbate these divisions at a time when there are already rampant class and racial tensions on show in most Western societies. 

As for privacy, these are familiar concerns from other areas of the digital age - how much data are people going to be expected to hand over and who is going to look after it? The danger of project creep is self-evident, whereby an initiative starts by collecting the bare minimum of information it says is needed, but over time more and more data is sucked in. As for who will be the custodian of any such data, the concerns here are obvious - are we handing our information over to government (big and small) or to private organizations? Either way, are we entirely comfortable that they will (a) keep it secure and (b) not put it to uses that we didn’t sign up for? 

Professor Melinda Mills, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford, argues that there needs to be highly conscious awareness of what a Vaccine Passport is - and is not - intended to do:

Understanding what a Vaccine Passport could be used for is a fundamental question – is it literally a passport to allow international travel or could it be used domestically to allow holders greater freedoms? The intended use will have significant implications across a wide range of legal and ethical issues that need to be fully explored and could inadvertently discriminate or exacerbate existing inequalities. 

International standardization is one of the criteria we believe essential, but we have already seen some countries introducing vaccine certificates related to travel or linked to quarantine or attending events. We need a broader discussion about multiple aspects of a Vaccine Passport, from the science of immunity through to data privacy, technical challenges and the ethics and legality of how it might be used.

There also cultural differences to be taken into account on a global scale. German concerns around personal privacy have previously been very different to US ones, for example. For Vaccine Passports to be useful in relation to international travel, some degree of standardization is clearly going to be needed in order to overcome national prejudices around carrying this form of personal credential. 

The UK political comedy series Yes Minister made a telling point around this in an episode that revolved around a plan to introduce a ‘Citizen’s Card’ across Europe, as the official in charge of the scheme dismissed concerns from his political masters about the unpopularity of such a scheme: 

The Germans will love it, the French will ignore it, and the Italians and Irish will be too chaotic to enforce it. Only the British will resent it.

That’s a comic exaggeration, of course, but there’s a strong germ in truth in the basic point about international attitudes that it makes.

In the UK, attempts to introduce ID cards in whatever form have been politically toxic since the end of WWII. Back in 2004, journalist Boris Johnson declared he would physically eat any form of state-mandated ID he was asked to carry. Today, as Prime Minister Johnson, he's pitching the idea that Vaccine Passports might be a jolly good idea - and opinion polls at present seem to suggest that Brits are ready to back up this view if it means getting back into pubs and clubs et al quicker. 

Over in the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who isn’t having any kind of ‘good war’ when it comes to anything to do with vaccines, is a big fan of what’s being called a Digital Green Pass, a European avatar of Israel’s Green Passport which has been rolled out in recent weeks as a requirement for entry to cinemas, gyms and hotels among other establishments. Individual EU countries are also working on their own iterations, with Spain already committing to having vaccine certificates ready by June. 

Meanwhile the US has avoided taking a stance at a Federal level, leaving individual states to implement their own thinking. So states like Florida and Texas have simply thrown off their masks with gay abandon, with some actively legislating to outlaw Vaccine Passports, while at the same time the likes of New York State is trialling its Excelsior Pass (see part 2 of this article for more). As for whether the Biden administration will take a stand, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasises that the current Federal focus is on getting people vaccinated and that the private sector and non-profits can crack on with ideas around Vaccine Passports.

How governments around the world do ultimately decide to proceed will be very telling. Enza Iannopollo, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research -  which has published The Opportunity, The Unknowns, And The Risks Of Vaccine Passports In The Workplace - observes: 

Human rights and data protection need to be weighed against a duty of care and commercial freedom to act. Governments may make vaccine passports mandatory on economic grounds or to protect public health. Or they may decide to dodge that bullet, but allow businesses to require them instead.

In other words, no jab, no job! 

Meanwhile the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has picked up on discrimination fears. Former UK Prime Minster Blair is himself a big fan of the passport idea, having previously unsuccessfully tried to introduce an ID card scheme on the back of 9/11. But two of his Institute’s experts, Policy Analyst Rosie Beacon and Head of the Digital Government Unit Kirsty Innes, argue that while the public appears “increasingly comfortable with the trade-off between protecting our civil liberties and protecting our health”, there are complications that need to be taken into account:

To avoid any issues of discrimination between ‘jabs’ and ‘jab nots’, re-opening should be available to people on the basis that they have either had the jab or had a recent test showing they do not have the virus…Combined with a digital health passport, this is the most effective way to manage risk as we begin to re-open. This isn’t an idea to be taken lightly. Conferring different rights and restrictions on people based on their health status is no way to run a society under normal circumstances, but due to the pandemic we are already being forced to do this. 

They add: 

Understandably, people are worried about the idea of entrusting an app or platform with their sensitive health information. But the technology already exists to allow us to prove our health status while keeping personal data private and secure. There are many companies developing solutions designed to address these worries. Data can be stored by trusted health authorities, and on the user’s personal device, and secured using advanced technologies.

With all that mind, what are the criteria that any Vaccine Passport provider needs to take into consideration? Part 2 of this article provides some thoughts