Deploying Digital Passports—Risk or Catalyst?

Long heralded as a symbol of rights, passports now foreshadow an equity and technological crisis. As Canada’s vaccination plan progresses onward, Health Minister Patty Hajdu hints at a potential vaccine documentation proposal. At present, the federal government demands a mandatory 72-hour hotel stay for all incoming travellers awaiting test outcomes. Perhaps the wait will not be long for Canada to issue Covid-19 vaccination certificates, following the footsteps of nations abroad.

As early as January 19, 2021, Greece implemented a vaccine certificate as part of its travel requirement. At the time, Greece and Austria were the only EU members to advocate for COVID-19 vaccination travel documents. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis mandated vaccine documentation for travellers and urged Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Union Commission, to support vaccine passports for the EU bloc.

In the past, vaccine passports in the form of the “Yellow Card” or “Carte Jeune” detailed a traveller’s vaccination history, rendering the identification process efficient for countries to examine travellers’ health data. The World Health Organization and the Government of Estonia commenced a plan last October to create a digital Yellow Card to accelerate international mobility and vaccination.

Covid-19 passports raise equity concerns. In Israel, green cards proving vaccination or recovery grant access and movement. For the remainder of the population without vaccinations due to shortage in supply or religious convictions, for instance, the lack of a Green Pass spells exclusion. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, intends to deliver vaccines to international allies and withhold vaccines from others. Discriminatory selection treads upon equity and undermines basic commitments to life, public health, and safety.

Digital passports also collect data on an unprecedented scale. The project encroaches on personal data security and privacy. Protecting information in a global data economy is becoming increasingly difficult. Digital vaccination certificates, once implemented and adopted, entail significant changes to modern life with regards to travel, purchase and sale, entertainment, and work.

As global vaccination plans fail to match demand levels, vaccine passports could mean increased chances of unemployment for those who are last in queue. Employers will likely prefer applicants with proof of vaccination indicated by digital health cards over those without similar documentation. At least in the near future, the rift between the wealthy and poor, the young and aged, the racialized and privileged, among others, will widen. Digital passports will inevitably exacerbate systemic discrimination and segregation.

Even worse, technology firms are actively pushing for digital cards and smartphone app developments. Their aggressive stance in facilitating technological innovation is fraught with potential indirect discrimination against historically disadvantaged communities with less affluence and young people without vaccination priority. Not everyone has a smartphone installed with apps confirming inoculation.

Digital wallets holding passports are also susceptible to hackers and data theft. Android and iOS apps commonly store data in the Cloud. Cloud misconfigurations often contain misconfigurations and programming errors that initially appear miniscule but ultimately leak passwords and medical data. The rush to develop vaccine apps inadvertently diminishes the chance of bug detection.

Instead of documenting a proof of vaccination, digital passports may transform into a surveillance act. Tracing systems’ revealing of location and sharing of medical data brings serious infringements on the little privacy individuals possess in the digital economy. Wearable technology and smart wallets collect personal information. As we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, governments may need to determine the correct balance between safeguarding the privacy of their citizens and keeping them safe from threats.

Despite what Canadians think, the federal government is likely not going to wait much longer. After all, when Covid-19 finishes looting life and health, the Parliament cannot afford to lose the economy too.

Written by Tiffany Wang. Tiffany is a first-year JD candidate and a 1L representative of the Intellectual Property Society of Osgoode.  

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