New York City’s Vaccine Passport Plan Renews the Online Privacy Controversy


When New York announced on Tuesday Mayor Bill de Blasio said the system is “simple – just show it and get in,” noting that people will soon need to show proof of at least one coronavirus vaccine shot to enter businesses.

The privacy debate the city rekindled was less straightforward.

vaccination passportsShowing proof of vaccination, often in electronic form, such as an app, forms the basis of Mr. de Blasio’s plan. For months, these records, also known as health passes or digital health certificates, have been discussed around the world as a means to ensure the safe collection of vaccinated people who are less at risk from the virus. New York will be the first US city to include these transitions in a vaccine mission, potentially initiating similar actions elsewhere.

But privacy researchers said the popularization of these credentials could usher in an era of increased digital surveillance. This is because vaccine passes can enable location tracking, although there are few rules about how people’s digital vaccine data should be stored and how it can be shared. Duration current privacy laws limit information sharing between medical providers, there is no such rule for when people upload their own data to an app.

Privacy advocates said the moment reminded them of the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was then that changes made in the name of national security had lasting effects, such as removing shoes at airports and collecting data provided by the Patriot Act.

Allie Bohm, a policy adviser at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that currently without security measures, offering a digital vaccine passport every time people enter a public place could lead to “a global map of where people are going.” He said the information could be used by third parties for profit or handed over to law enforcement or immigration authorities.

“How can we be sure that in 20 years we haven’t said, ‘Well, I had Covid, now I have this passport on my phone, but also this passport with my driver’s license and all my health records so far’? and every time I go into a store, do I have to swipe it?’” said Mrs. Bohm.

He added that the transitions can be particularly disadvantageous for groups who are more concerned about privacy, including those without documents. The New York Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups supported legislation to prevent vaccine data from being shared with law enforcement and to ensure that crossovers do not become permanent health monitors.

Vaccination passports have been made available in the United States largely without a national framework. President Biden has rejected a national vaccine pass, leaving states, cities and private companies to determine whether and how they will have their own electronic systems to track people who have been vaccinated.

Some companies developing digital vaccine transitions have tried to avoid privacy concerns. More than 200 private and public organizations have recently joined the Vaccine Identity Initiative, a coalition that aims to standardize how vaccine data is recorded and protected.

Many developers said they went to great lengths to make sure passports didn’t exceed privacy limits. Clear Secure, a security company that creates a health card used by more than 60 organizations, mostly gyms, said health data on its users is “processed with extreme care” and is protected by a variety of tools. Employers or venues said they may only see a red or green signal that indicates whether a user has been vaccinated.

The Commons Project, a nonprofit that has developed a vaccination card called CommonPass, stores vaccination and testing data on users’ phones and uploads the information to a server only temporarily to check if a traveler meets the requirements. Airlines that have adopted the CommonPass, including JetBlue and Lufthansa, said they can only see if a passenger has a travel permit.

JP Pollak, co-founder of the Commons Project, said the group’s vaccine pass was “safe” and kept user data private.

But as vaccine passports continue to evolve, Covid-19 contact tracing apps introduced earlier during the pandemic are already being used by more authoritarian countries, raising privacy questions. This gives researchers little confidence in how these vaccines can be used later.

For example, in China, a program called “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” included in the Alipay Health Code, used by the Chinese government to assess the health status of people, sends a person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server as soon as the user has granted the software access to personal data.

In Singapore, authorities said in January that data from the country’s coronavirus contact tracing system was used in a criminal investigation, although leaders initially said it would only be used for contact tracing. Singapore in February passed a law that limits such use to “serious” criminal investigations only.

“One of the things we don’t want is for us to normalize surveillance in an emergency and not be able to get out of it,” said Jon Callas, director of technology projects at digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Although such incidents do not occur in the United States, they already see the potential for overreach, the researchers said. Some pointed to New York City, where proof of vaccine requirements will begin on August 16 and take effect from September 13.

As proof, people can use their paper vaccination cards, the NYC Covid Safe app, or another app, Excelsior Pass. NS Excelsior Pass It was developed by IBM under an estimated $17 million contract with the State of New York.

To get the pass, people upload their personal information. In the standard version of the pass, businesses and third parties only see if the pass is valid, along with the person’s name and date of birth.

The state announced Wednesday its “Excelsior Pass Plus,” which includes more information about not only if someone has been vaccinated, but also when and where they got their vaccinations. According to New York State, businesses that scan for Pass Plus “may save or keep the information it contains.”

The Excelsior Pass also includes “Phase 2,This may include expanding the use of the app and adding more information such as personal information and other health records that can be checked by businesses upon entry.

Said he was using IBM blockchain technology and encryption to protect user data, but did not say how. The company and the State of New York did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. de Blasio He told WNYC in April He said he understands the privacy concerns about Excelsior Pass, but still thinks it “will play an important role.”

For now, some states and cities are moving cautiously. More than a dozen statesincluding Arizona, Florida and Texas, In recent months announced a kind of ban on vaccination passports. The mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle have also said they are delaying their passport programs.

Some business groups and companies that have embraced vaccine transitions said privacy concerns are valid but manageable.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said it supports vaccine transitions and compels the federal government to establish privacy standards. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which helps its members work with Clear, said it was preferable to use tools to ensure that only vaccinated people enter stores, rather than closing businesses again as cases of the virus escalate.

“People’s privacy is valuable,” said Rodney Fong, chair of the chamber, “but when we talk about saving lives, the privacy part becomes a little less important.”


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