Have a passport in your pocket can sometimes seem almost magical. Borders are blurring, immigration lines are disappearing and the world suddenly feels more accessible. For those of us fortunate enough to have widely accepted travel documents, it can mean bypassing border controls and visa requirements that restrict travel for most of humanity. Vaccine passports have played a role in this immigration process for decades, but the term is now being unveiled for a very different type of system, that of mass surveillance and segregation.
Historically, vaccine passports have taken the form of the iconic “yellow card. Technically titled an international certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis, the decidedly low-tech document simply lists and certifies an individual’s vaccination history. Although the current form has not been updated since 2005, the basic framework has not changed much since the system was adopted by the International Sanitary Convention in 1944.
The goal of yellow cards has always been twofold: to protect public health while harmonizing the global standard for immunization reporting, thereby making it easier for countries to certify and confirm travelers’ health histories. As ever larger swathes of the population are being vaccinated against Covid-19, it makes perfect sense that yellow cards play a role in our response, helping countries with low Covid-19 rates prevent the introduction of additional cases or new strains.
The World Health Organization has offered a digital yellow card, a secure cryptographic vaccination record that could be displayed at the border. This standard poses many technical questions, but it is largely unassailable. After all, we have global standards for encoding electronic passport information, using RFID and other technologies, so why not do the same for vaccine data?
The controversy stems from a very different type of vaccine passport, not deployed at the border, but envisioned for neighborhoods across the United States. Although this type of local tracking system is often referred to by the same name, its implications are quite different.
New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang says vaccine passports shouldn’t be limited to travel, they should be the key to accessing your “Office building or restaurant or the like.” The presidential candidate turned television commentator is not alone. A growing number of startups and tech giants are hoping to develop a daily vaccine tracking system.
When the Vaccination certificates initiative Launched last month, the partnership between tech giants and insurers (including Microsoft, Oracle and Cigna) promised their technology would bring life back to life as usual. For a participating organization, the Commons Project, it would mean a new digital key to access modern life, “Whether it’s getting on a plane and going to another country, whether it’s to work, school, the grocery store, for live concerts or sporting events.”
A sight very appealing to some could turn into a dystopian nightmare for millions of people. Such restrictive passports could mean being excluded from your job, your studies, or even the ability to buy food. At a time when vaccine distribution is highlight inequalities both locally and internationally, when communities of color and low-income communities are systematically underserved, vaccine passports would amplify our medical isolation.
Suddenly, black Americans and Latin Americans could not only be excluded from queues for vaccines, but from almost every aspect of public life. And at a time when one in five Americans does not have a smartphone, and many others are using devices too old to support such an application, we would likely see millions of vaccinated Americans falsely blocked from public spaces. To make matters worse, none of these efforts come from public health authorities.
As recent voter suppression laws prove, imposing even a seemingly minor barrier can effectively prevent millions of people from exercising their basic rights. Requiring a driver’s license to vote seems like a trivial step to many, but it is truly insurmountable for millions of potential voters. Vaccine passports may not be intentionally discriminatory like voter identification laws are, but their impact can be just as stark. Requiring a smartphone app to operate or take training is to exclude the millions of people who do not initially have a smartphone.