Privacy in the Era of Health Passports
August 12, 2021
As travel, both foreign and domestic, picks back up and the world returns to pre-pandemic work and life, governments around the world are grappling with how to address the influx of travelers and people getting back into their daily routines, while still dealing with the long-term, widespread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though countries have introduced (or encouraged) various health and safety best practices in the hopes of continuing to limit the exposure and spread of the virus, including vaccinations, social distancing, small gatherings instead of large ones, negative COVID tests and masking, the adoption of “vaccine passports” for proof of vaccination is growing, particularly as a requirement for travelers.
The Growing Use of Vaccine Passports
Health passports or vaccination passports—better known as immunization records pre-COVID—are becoming increasingly used, digitally (with a QR code), as proof of a person’s health status when it comes to the coronavirus and its accompanying variants. As such, many governments are implementing and enforcing policies for the use of these immunity passports when it comes to domestic affairs (places of work, hotels, sporting events, etc.) and travel, for both the arriving and the departing. The private sector is also taking things into its own hands with companies such as Disney and Walmart introducing their own policies regarding vaccinations and the wearing of masks for employees.
However, the differing and frequently modified policies across jurisdictions (states and countries) for these vaccination passports or travel passes can cause significant confusion, particularly for travelers trying to keep track of it all, but also raises concerns about how protected people’s privacy and health data is.
Here are some examples of recent vaccine passport guidelines in place around the globe. Please note that there are daily changes to this news.
United States: Though the United States does not have a national vaccine passport, it has recently begun to implement strong vaccine mandates for all federal government employees and on-site contractors, requiring proof of vaccination or strict masking protocols for those unvaccinated. More so, it is expected that similar mandates will be implemented for service members, and the VA (Veteran Affairs Department) is requiring that VA frontline healthcare workers be vaccinated.
While the government has encouraged COVID safety protocols and vaccinations, states have differing policies for fighting the coronavirus, from masking to vaccine passports. Some states such as California have an optional certificate and online portal where people can digitally keep track of their vaccine information, but it is not widely enforced, and New York has an app that can be used to show proof of vaccination as part of the new vaccine requirement for accessing indoor venues. As a result of the different guidelines across state lines, there is confusion over how to use these vaccination apps and whether they are required. Travel-wise, there is no mandated vaccine passport, but for international travel, the federal government does require proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of air travel for entering the country.
Europe: The EU has the EU Digital COVID Certificate, a certified digital or printed travel pass with a QR code that people from the 27 member states and certain non-EU states can use to show proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test (the primary test used to detect the coronavirus) or recovery from a prior COVID infection, in order to travel throughout the bloc without restrictions. On a domestic level, countries are also implementing their own policies by requiring health passports for residents and tourists that want to stay at hotels or enjoy indoor dining, museums, festivals, sporting events, popular tourist attractions and the like.
United Kingdom: The UK has various policies within England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In England, there is the NHS Covid Pass for people that have been fully vaccinated by the National Health Service that can be used for travel and is also accepted by some countries in Europe. England also recently lifted restrictions on traveling to countries on the amber list and fully vaccinated individuals and people under eighteen no longer have to self-quarantine after visiting those countries if they use the NHS Covid Pass app. On a local level, while masking is encouraged it is no longer legally required and there are no limits on the number of people that can gather, though it is recommended that large venues use the NHS Covid Pass to check for proof of vaccination.
Israel: Though Israel had the fastest vaccine rollout during the height of the pandemic, the country is now facing rising cases of the virus, and countries such as the US have issued travel advisories against traveling to Israel for the time being. In hopes of avoiding further lockdowns, the government is encouraging masking, quarantining and vaccinations, but is also planning on reinstating the green passport, its version of a digital vaccine passport app, for people to use to attend large events as well as access places such as restaurants and gyms, to name a few.
Australia: With low vaccination rates and rising COVID cases, Australia has had strict travel restrictions for exiting the country as well as entering the country, including for Australian citizens, with many unable to return home. The country is also currently implementing strict lockdowns across different states in response to the growing cases and facing strong backlash. Australia appears to be in the process of creating a smartphone app that will act as a vaccination certificate.
Protecting PII Data
Our daily lives and activities are becoming more digital, from using eCommerce marketplaces to telemedicine and digital banking. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rear its ugly head globally, governments and businesses want to be confident that the information presented on these health apps is trustworthy. As more health-related data becomes stored digitally and used on mobile devices, it will be important for the platforms that store people’s data to mitigate risk by having the proper identity verification and cybersecurity measures in place to protect people’s health data from being stolen, while also being able to verify that the identity information provided is both real and accurate.
While a digital health passport app may be an easy, convenient and efficient form of confirming people’s COVID test results or proof of vaccination, the importance of protecting individuals’ personally identifiable information (PII) cannot be understated, particularly when it comes to the security of patients’ health data and preventing identity theft by fraudsters—ensuring data privacy is paramount.
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