Vaccine passports: why privacy experts fear Covid certificates could create ‘two-tier’ society

Using Covid vaccine passports for access to public life could be a “slippery slope” towards human rights violations, say privacy campaigners.

Imagine a world in which, each time you want to catch a train, go to a gig or visit a relative in a care home, you’re obliged to show a digital certificate proving your vaccination status.

It’s a world that would have been unthinkable to most of us just a year ago, yet with Covid vaccine passports on the horizon, it’s no longer so far-fetched.

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To some, the idea of Covid vaccine “passports” to allow the fully vaccinated access to theatres, sporting events and nightclubs seems like a no-brainer, enabling society to reopen while preventing the spread of infection.

A smartphone showing Denmark's MinSundhed app and Corona passport link. The pass certifies that someone has either been fully vaccinated, has tested negative in the last 72 hours, or has tested positive two to 12 weeks earlier, conferring immunity to the virus.
A smartphone showing Denmark's MinSundhed app and Corona passport link. The pass certifies that someone has either been fully vaccinated, has tested negative in the last 72 hours, or has tested positive two to 12 weeks earlier, conferring immunity to the virus.

To a number of privacy campaigners and political leaders, however, the proposal raises a number of complex legal and ethical issues: what about those who opt out of, or cannot be vaccinated? How will those without access to phones manage? And what are the long-term implications for society?

Legal issues and data protection

The first urgent questions that need to be asked, explains Heather Burns, policy manager at digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, concern the legal implications of vaccine passports.

“We need to map out exactly what’s going to be done with the data collected, who you’re sharing it with, how you’re using it and what might happen to it after the pandemic.”

The government, she says, is quick to dismiss these considerations as “red tape” in spite of the huge implications vaccine certification could have for human rights.

So far, the government has only hinted at piloting the scheme in nightclubs, theatres and other large-scale venues, but Heather sees the scheme as a “slippery slope” to gatekeeping all kinds of services and parts of society, from libraries to employment.

“This isn’t just about the data on your medical file, it’s about your basic human rights to freedom of movement, employment and privacy,” she explains.

So far, there’s been no indication of who would regulate vaccine passports, meaning it’s unclear “who you could complain to if your human rights have been violated”.

She adds that using existing software, such as the NHS Test and Trace app, for vaccine certification also presents legal issues. “Open Rights group would oppose the repurposing of any existing system which would link other information about you to your vaccine certification”.

Collating all this information creates the risk of massive data breaches, Heather says.

“You can’t ruin someone’s life with their name and vaccine certificate. You maybe could with their name, passport status, vaccine status and financial history.”

Racial discrimination

With vaccine take-up lower among certain ethnic groups, vaccine certification also risks creating a “two-tier” society, explains Heather, in which discrimination could thrive.

“If there’s a low take-up in ethnic minority communities for any reason, the introduction of a vaccine passport just gives provocateurs even more leverage to accuse these communities of not integrating properly.

“From there it’s a very short step to someone demanding vaccine passports for everyone who isn’t the same colour as them entering their shop”.

Passports could also present huge issues for anyone with an uncertain immigration status, especially if vaccine certification was linked to other personal data.

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Generational discrimination

Even if vaccine passports are to be introduced, they should “absolutely not be talked about until everyone has been offered the vaccine”, says Heather, pointing out the fundamental unfairness in allowing only certain groups of people access to services and leisure.

One of the advantages in waiting until everyone has been vaccinated, she adds, would be that it would afford the government time to “think through all these difficult questions around data protection safeguards and human rights safeguards.”

It’s not just young people that would lose out either, Heather adds: “We also need to think about people who don’t have phones, those who are elderly or poor. Why are we pushing for a digital solution to something which could easily be a piece of paper?”

Both she and other privacy campaigners fear that the vaccine certification system is a “test run” for a national digital identity system - a concept many oppose on principle.

If introduced, these passports could pave the way for further surveillance and invasions of privacy, says Heather.

“[Vaccine passports] are being presented as an issue of consumerism”, she explains.

“But really, it’s about what kind of society we want to be”.